The Power of Perspective Taking
How leaning in can expand our worldview and deepen our relationships.
Posted June 2, 2019 | Reviewed by Jessica Schrader
What is one thing that each and every one of us has that is unique from all others? And how can we access this awareness to deepen our relationships and expand our worldview?
How we see our lives is how we live our lives. Our perspective is arguably the single greatest aspect of our uniqueness. It is also the foundation for one of the most powerful tools through which we can relate to and build relationships with others: perspective taking.
Do you know what a phoropter is? It’s the device used by an optometrist to gauge your eyeglass prescription. Through an alternating series of lenses, you are asked: “Which one is better, option 1 or option 2?” There is no “right” answer, as the answer depends on the eyes of the person behind the lens.
We each have a uniquely valuable perspective on life—a lens through which we interpret our lives. Through our perspective, we define what makes sense to us, which is differentiated from how others see and experience life. However, we don’t know what we don’t know, and perspective taking provides a powerful tool to expand our own perspective by learning from the way others see life.
A Center for Effective Organizations study by Richard J. Boland Jr. suggests that when designing electronic communication in companies in the knowledge economy (“communities of knowing”), “the process of perspective taking may be the most crucial communication process to an organization’s success.”
The study states that:
"Success depends on how effectively the diverse individuals are able to organize and develop their unique knowledge competencies, as well as how effectively they can integrate and synergistically utilize their distinctive knowledge through a process of perspective taking.”
Respecting the perspective or habits of others by offering them empathy is crucial for our development on both a personal and professional level. This occurs through perspective-taking, or “the act of perceiving a situation or understanding a concept from an alternative point of view, such as that of another individual.”
Perspective taking is a multidimensional ability that includes understanding not only someone’s visual assessment of reality (their viewpoint), but also their perceptual assessment (their understanding). The process is one of leaning in to see the world through someone’s lens, rather than fully stepping into their shoes. Psychology supports that the ability to remain in our own shoes is effective and desirable because of the lower amount of emotional stress involved in the empathetic process.
Michael Poulin, associate professor at the State University of New York at Buffalo and colleagues showed in their 2017 study that an “imagine others” perspective leads to less stress than an “imagine self” perspective (i.e., walking a mile in someone else’s shoes). “You can think about another person’s feelings without taking those feelings upon yourself,” Poulin said. The distinction is important: Stay in your own shoes while appreciating another’s visual and perceptual perspective.
The Benefits of Perspective Taking
Perspective taking allows for the growth and further application of our own knowledge by expanding our own perspective. It is the equivalent of seeing life as if through a tunnel and having someone break down the sides of the tunnel to create a more expansive perspective on life. Multiple perspectives are crucial to gain a full understanding of a concept, experience, or environment.
The benefits of perspective taking include:
1. Added Dimension
Our perspective is our version of reality. We each have our own unique reality, shaped by our experiences and the resulting lens through which we see the world. When we open ourselves to seeing life through the lens of another, it is like looking through a telescope, rather than a microscope ... and with that added dimension comes personal growth.
2. Building Empathy
Taking the time to respect the perspectives of others fosters understanding, empathy, and compassion. We don’t have to agree with the way others interpret life or the circumstances or concepts therein, though we do have to respect that each one of us has our own unique viewpoint, founded in the unique set of circumstances that has shaped our present perspective.
3. Learning and Growth
We are each others’ teachers. When we choose to learn from each other, we expand our awareness of what is possible for ourselves, on a personal and professional level, and for us as a global society. When you take a moment to “look through the lens” of another and momentarily embrace or attempt to understand their perspective, what you learn may very well be something that you may not have learned by continuing to solely look at life through your own lens.
The most important point is to recall that we each have a unique perspective on life and that each of these perspectives has value—like providing a multidimensional view on a single topic. When we take the time to understand and respect the perspectives of others, we are able to better serve them, and we accelerate our own personal and professional growth.
Three Choices That Deepen Your Worldview and Relationships Using Perspective Taking:
1. Appreciate your own perspective. While it may seem like a selfish starting point, it is integral that we appreciate our own view on life and how it was formed, in order to respect and appreciate the perspectives of others. If you can grasp the filter through which you assess and process life, then you begin to understand how others do the same, in a way that is distinct from you. When you can fully grasp the depths and heights to which you’ve traveled to reach your current viewpoint, you are less likely to judge another for how they see the world ... no matter how vastly different it is from what you see.
2. Allow the other person to lead. The late educator Stephen Covey said it best in The 7 Habit of Highly Effective People, “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” Before seeking to have your perspective understood, seek first to understand that of the other person. Use your lens as a point of relatability to support another in their viewpoint, or to provide a unique perspective that may foster an expanded perspective for them.
3. Be 100 percent present. Truly grasping the perspective of another requires that you be fully present when you are with someone, whether personally or professionally. It means offering them your undivided attention. Make the moment about them and create space for them to share what they have to share with you. Listen. Respect. We connect at a much deeper level when we understand each other not only through the communication of our five senses, but also through the power of our intuition and awareness.
“I understand” are two of the most powerful words you can usher, personally and professionally. Whether we believe in the power of our daily rituals or hold a powerful world-shifting viewpoint, acknowledging and respecting the perspectives of others is the tool that fuels the depth, value, and meaning of our contribution to and relationships with them.