Consider Other Perspectives

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Learning Objectives

  • Learn to enhance your ability to consider situations from many points of view.

Quotes

“I feel like my advisor puts more pressure on me than my other labmates. I don’t understand why she does this.”

“I feel relatively alone in my lab, like I have nothing in common with anyone else.”

The Importance of Understanding Others

As a graduate student, you most likely have many demands and expectations placed on you. Your program, your faculty advisor, your family, and society are a few sources from which you probably feel pressure to perform. You may understandably feel overwhelmed and frustrated when people in your life are demanding yet unsupportive, perhaps providing little constructive feedback or guidance while also having high expectations. Are some people simply trying to make your life difficult or is something else going on? How can you get a handle on this?

Human relationships — whether personal, academic, or professional — are complex. Each and every interaction you have with another person is impacted by an unfathomable number of factors, perhaps ranging from how your (and the other person’s) day is going, to what your (and his) personal goals in life may be. Thrown into the mix of these personal moods and agendas are your own intentions and the assumptions people continuously make about each other.

Understanding others is key to effective interactions. The perspective-taking skills discussed in this module will provide you with tools enabling you to consider situations from many points of view.

Reflections: test your perspective

What are you seeing in each of these pictures?

An old woman or a young woman?

A Sax player or a lady?

A face or a person with a thick jacket?

These are all exercises in perspective-taking. It’s an illustration of how the same thing can appear different to different people, and change at different times. You may look at one of these pictures and see one image and then within moments, another one becomes the focal point.

Your life circumstances also follow this logic. There are many ways to look at any one situation.

What is Perspective Taking?

In an emotionally charged situation, you may often lose sight of the big picture. As a result, you tend to focus on your own experience in the moment and forget that others might approach the issue with different thoughts and feelings.1

Simply put, perspective taking is the act of considering what another person’s viewpoint could be in a given situation. It is “putting yourself in the other person’s shoes,” as the common expression goes, or actively imagining how someone else experiences the event.2

Research on human behavior and relationships has given some credit to this age-old adage. Studies indicate that taking the perspective of another person helps significantly in negotiations, problem solving, and overall satisfaction with relationships.3

Methods of Perspective Taking

Two methods of perspective taking include:

  • Imagining how the other person perceives a situation and how s/he feels about it
  • Imagining how you would perceive the situation and feel about it if you were in the other person’s position
  • Both methods of perspective taking facilitate a clearer understanding of the expectations others have of us. That understanding can lead to more productive relationships.4

Watch, Listen, Search

A three-step approach to perspective taking is outlined below. The steps involve gathering data on the other person’s perspective through careful observation and thoughtful consideration.

Take the following example:

You are at a research team meeting. Your labmate, Harpreet, sits through the meeting slouched in her chair with her head in her hands. The research team leader makes a comment about her recent decline in productivity. She explains that she has been sick lately and hasn’t been able to work much on the current project. She remains quiet and tight-lipped the remainder of the meeting. After the meeting you see Harpreet in the hall. You explain to her that you just recently had the same bug, and it helped you to stay in for a day and sleep it off. She shoots you a menacing look and storms out without saying good bye.

Step One: Watch

Start by identifying and monitoring your own thoughts and feelings about a given situation. Not only does this help you focus and gain awareness, but watching also aids in uncovering the subtle cues others provide regarding their thoughts and feelings. Possible cues can involve body language, tone of voice, and facial expression.

Harpreet’s body language:

  • slouched position
  • head in hands
  • solemn facial expression
  • glare in hallway
  • removes herself from the room

Step Two: Listen

Remember that hearing and listening are not the same. Listen carefully to what the other person is saying explicitly and implicitly. That is, what are they directly saying, and what can you infer about their message from the way they deliver it?

In some cases, people will tell you directly what their viewpoint or perspective is.

At other times, the message and meaning might be ambiguous, and you will need to listen just as carefully to what is NOT being said.

Harpreet’s explicit communication:

  • She has been behind in work. (according to the team leader)
  • She has been sick. (according to herself)

Harpreet's implicit communication:

  • She was possibly upset by the advisor’s comment, as she remained silent after it was made.
  • Her glare indicated that something about your remark in the hallway might have rubbed her the wrong way.

Step Three: Search

With a better understanding of what is being communicated, you will now want to put yourself in the other person’s shoes.

What might the other person have at stake in the situation?

How might the situation appear from their standpoint?

How are they affected by the demands placed on them?

How might your actions affect them?

Try using the two methods described earlier in this module: imagining what the other person is experiencing, and imagining how you might experience it from their position.

Harpreet has at stake:

  • Her standing with the research team (as she is behind in her work)
  • Her health
  • Additional responsibilities such as other school and family demands

In Harpreet’s case, she might:

  • Feel embarrassed
  • Be frustrated that she has fallen behind in work
  • Feel that people are not supportive of her situation
  • Find your comment to be unhelpful or insensitive. In fact, your comment might have come across as, “Why can’t you get yourself together like I can?”

A next step in this hypothetical situation is to check in with Harpreet about whether or not you are accurate in your perception. In fact, the entire situation might have been avoided if Harpreet was asked, “Hey, is everything OK? What is going on for you?” as opposed to having received advice. It is always best to go directly to the source for information.

Self-test

Vauna has been working more hours than usual in your lab. She’s also been in a bad mood all week. You joked the other day that she is starting to make you look bad because she is staying way later than any of the other members of your lab group. When she heard your comment, she got very irritated and said, “Why don’t you get to work yourself. That proposal is due next week.” One of your other labmates shared with you that your shared advisor told her that she wasn’t performing like she should, being the senior member of the team and all; he was really disappointed in her productivity and ability to guide the junior members of the team.

Take Vauna’s situation: What should you be watching, listening, or searching for?




Best Answer: D. Being aware of Vauna’s point of view and her intentions and motivations will help you understand her actions.

Conclusion

Being aware of another person’s point of view and her/his intentions and motivations is key to understanding her/his actions. Comparing your perspective with that of the other person may assist you in recognizing the difficulties you are facing from an objective standpoint. A small amount of understanding can go a long way in diffusing tension and laying the foundation for effective negotiation and problem solving.

References

  1. Davis, M. H., Conklin, L., Smith, A., & Luce, C. (1996). Effect of perspective-taking on the cognitive representations of persons: A merging of self and other. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 70, 713–726. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.70.4.713
  2. Batson, C. D., Ecklund, J. H., Chermok, V. L., Hoyt, J. L., & Ortiz, B. G. (2007). An additional antecedent of empathic concern: Valuing the welfare of the person in need. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 93, 65–74. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.93.1.65
  3. Galinsky, A. D., Maddux, W. M., Gilin, D., & White, J. B. (2008). Why it pays to get inside the head of your opponent: The differential effects of perspective taking and empathy in negotiations. Psychological Science, 19, 378–384. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9280.2008.02096.x
  4. Batson, C. D., Early, S., & Salvarani, G. (1997). Perspective taking: Imagining how another feels versus imagining how you would feel. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 23, 751–758. doi:10.1177/0146167297237008

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