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?
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.