Perceptual Positions – Seeing things from another’s point of view

You may have heard the expression, “Before you criticize others, walk a mile in their shoes.”

This is good advice, but how can you actually do that? How do you learn to see things from someone else’s point of view so that you can better understand that person’s thoughts and actions?

Well, the good news is that you don’t literally have to walk a mile in anyone’s shoes. Thanks to a technique called Perceptual Positions, you can learn to experience a situation through someone else’s eyes, while you stay in your own office, in your own shoes!

In this article, we describe Perceptual Positions, review the benefits of using it, and show you the steps you need to use it for yourself.

What are perceptual positions?

The Perceptual Positions exercise is taken from Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP). Its goal is to show you, in a structured way, how to see other people’s points of view. It’s a straightforward exercise that you can do in just a few minutes.

Here’s a situation that would benefit from a perceptual positions exercise: Imagine you’re having trouble with your boss. She’s asked you to finish a report by the end of the day, so you get it done. However, when you hand the report to her, she’s angry that you didn’t finish another task she also gave you an hour later.

Situations like this can be frustrating. However, like most things in life, there are usually two sides to the story. A technique like perceptual positions can help you understand your boss’s perspective, so that you can both communicate with each other more constructively, and work out a resolution.

The Perceptual Positions Exercise

The Perceptual Positions exercise allows you to look at a situation from three different viewpoints: your own, the other person’s, and that of an objective outsider. Follow these steps to take yourself through the technique.

Step 1: Identify the Situation

Start by identifying a specific situation for which you need more clarity. We’ll continue to use the example of the angry boss.

Step 2: Set up Your Space

Using this technique, you move to an entirely different place in the room every time you “change positions” (become someone else). This doesn’t have to be a major change – for example, you could simply switch chairs in your office. However, it’s important to set up three separate locations – called “spatial anchors” – before you begin.

The reason why it’s useful to change spaces is because this allows you to take a break from each viewpoint you’ll be experiencing. Think of it like wiping the slate clean and readying yourself to write something new. Practitioners call this “breaking state,” and physically changing positions for each viewpoint is important to the success of this exercise.

Make sure you know which space you’ll use for each viewpoint. For example, when you’re being yourself, you’ll sit behind your desk. When you take your boss’s position, you’ll sit in the chair across from your desk. And when you’re the objective outsider, you’ll sit in the chair across the room.

Step 3: Get to Know Each Position (Person)

Before you start dealing with a specific issue, familiarize yourself with the different positions you’ll experience.

This is similar to trying on new clothes. Simply imagine what it’s like to be “inside” each different person. Think of it as role-playing. Don’t focus on your specific situation yet.

It’s important to imagine as much detail as possible. For instance, if you’re taking your boss’s position, think about her hand gestures, her mannerisms, and her viewpoints. Hear her voice as she talks, and try to imagine how she feels in different situations. Really put yourself into the role, much like an actor would. For just a minute or two, try to ‘become’ her.

In perceptual positions, there are three commonly used positions. Practice each position for just a minute:

  • First position – This is you.
  • Second position – This is the other person involved in the situation (in this case, your boss).
  • Third position – This is an objective outsider, someone who has no connection with, or involvement in, the situation.

Every time you switch positions, take a quick break, and do something entirely different to free your mind of that role. You could drink some water or read a paragraph from a book. This will help your mind “leave” one role so you can easily change to the next. 

Step 4: Explore Each Position

Now you’re ready to start imagining your specific situation.

  • First position – Go to your first spatial anchor point, the physical space you chose for your first position (in our example, the chair behind your desk). Close your eyes, and review the specific situation in your mind. Picture it exactly as it happened, seeing it through your own eyes. Remember exactly what each person said, and how you felt.

The more specific you are, the better the exercise will work.

  • Second position – After you replay the situation clearly from your viewpoint, take a break. Get up and do something else for 15 seconds. Then, move to your second position’s spatial anchor point (in our example, the chair across from your desk).

Imagine the situation from the other person’s point of view. Imagine stepping into your boss’s body, and look at yourself through her eyes. Replay again what you both said – but this time, try to imagine her perspective. What pressures is she under? How does she see you and your actions?

  • Third position – Once you’ve completely replayed the situation, take another quick break. Then step into the position of the objective outsider, moving to the third spatial anchor point (in our example, the chair across the room).

For this last position, it’s helpful to picture yourself looking down on the scene from above, or looking through a window into the room. You could also imagine yourself as a counsellor, listening objectively to both sides of the story.

Ask yourself these questions: How are these two people acting? Are they being fair to each other? Is one being dominant, while the other is submissive? What advice would you give these two people to help them work out their differences?

Step 5: Analyse What You’ve Learned

Take a few minutes to write down what you learned from the exercise. What did you learn about yourself? What did you learn about the other person? How do you want to move forward from here?

Key Points

The perceptual positions technique allows you to see things from someone else’s perspective. By replaying a scene from the viewpoints of yourself, the other person, and an objective outsider, you may get a clearer picture of what actually happened – and how the other person sees the situation. This technique may take some practice, but the more you do it, the easier it will become.

Mind Tools

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Likeable people – interesting traits

Too many people succumb to the mistaken belief that being likeable comes from natural, unteachable traits that belong only to a lucky few—the good looking, the fiercely social, and the incredibly talented. It’s easy to fall prey to this misconception.

When I speak to smaller audiences, I often ask them to describe the most likeable people they have ever worked with. People inevitably ignore innate characteristics (intelligence, extraversion, attractiveness, and so on) and instead focus on qualities that are completely under people’s control, such as approachability, humility, and positivity. Continue reading

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Cultivating a consciousness of time

We hear it all the time… “I don’t have enough time.”

We feel there is too much to do and not enough time to do it in.

And even though that feels very true, when you start to change your perspective, you realize that it does not need to be your reality.

Time actually is inside of us. It is how we hold time. It is how we perceive time. And when we shift our relationship with time, we then create a different reality.

Time shortage is created by a lack of understanding that we are the creators of our own reality, and that the reality we create is always the direct result of how, and on what we focus our attention. When our attention is focused on trying to secure relationships, possessions, situations or accomplishments to validate our worth or “make us happy,” our experience of life is one of never having enough of anything – including time. Continue reading

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Consulting Joy turns five

Thank you to all of you for being on the coaching journey with me over the last five years and for helping to build Consulting Joy into the practise that it is today.  Today I am celebrating a five year journey and want to share it with all of you.

Happy Birthday, Consulting Joy.

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Why audiences get the performances that they deserve

Audiences get the performances they deserve. Those paying less attention get less attentive performers. Those listening quietly allow performers to do what they set out to do. Those that engage in the highest quality listening and appreciation inspire the highest quality performances and develop the highest quality relationships.

At an early moment in a recent Hatch event, singer/songwriter Paul Durham gave an impassioned plea to the assembled group:

As a musician, I’d like to ask for quiet during musicians’ performances. We should treat musicians with at least the same respect with which we treat speakers – maybe even more, since the musicians are pouring their hearts and souls into their music.

And sure enough, later that evening we saw exactly what he was talking about when a handful of musicians came together to deliver an epic music set that reached into the audience’s hearts and souls and made people break out into goose bumps, chills, tears and ongoing standing ovations.

The worst scenario is not listening at all. Then there are three levels of listening.

Level One Listening – Multi-tasking

Level one is listening while doing something else at the same time. Think about musicians in a bar or café. As Durham told me, “When people are talking to each other while I’m playing, I’m really just providing background music. “The energy and passion performers put into providing background music is all that is required to produce the minimum viable product. They will comply with what they must do, but no more.

Level Two Listening – Attentive

Level two listening is what Durham asked for. The audience is quiet and open to receive the performer’s message. Durham told me, “When the audience is quiet, I can bring them up and down and back.” Essentially, attentive listening gives performers the space they need to do their thing. They will do their best to contribute to the experience.

Level Three Listening – Interactive

Level three listening is interactive. Audience members beyond receiving the performer’s message to actively engaging with the performer and not only being open to being moved, but letting the performer know how they are feeling along the way. Think of the difference between a stand-up comic working with a silent audience and an audience feeding off the comic’s performance and feeding it right back.

On the last evening of this event, we watched a transformation in Daniel Blue in the middle of one song. He started out great. The audience reacted. Then he took the performance to a whole new level. As he put it, “Sometimes Duendé just takes over.” Duendé, as master is “the creative force flowing from the source and through the artist or storyteller.” An interactive audience actively assists that flow.

That’s why audiences get the performances they deserve. Multi-task and you’ll get the minimum viable performance. Listen attentively and you’ll get the best a performer has to offer. Listen actively and you’ll unleash the power of Duendé and help performers go to new levels.

Implications for Other Interactions

You’ve already figured out that this goes beyond performers. It’s true of any conversation with any storyteller in any situation – personal or professional.

Multi-task while your child, spouse, friend, colleague, boss or subordinate is talking and you’ll get the background music you deserve – until they get fed up and find a better audience.

Listen attentively and those communicating with you will give the conversation the best they’ve got.

Active listening is about being open to being moved and showing how you feel along the way. It’s not about inserting your point of view. Be open, show your emotions and you’ll unleash the power of Duendé to take the conversation and the relationship to a whole new level.

If the relationships don’t matter, go ahead and multi-task or cut people out of conversations in the name of efficiency, time management or other priorities. But for the relationships that do matter, investing in active listening is the best use of your time.


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