In order to resolve conflict constructively, so that all parties are satisfied with the outcome, a person must be able to hold all the opposing ideas, positions, and perspectives in mind at the same time and still function effectively. Successful problem-solving and conflict resolution largely depends on a person’s ability to take the opponent’s cognitive and affective perspectives and understand how the conflict appears to the other person and how that person is reacting emotionally and attitudinally. If a person cannot take the perspective of opponents, then his or her understanding of the issue is limited and incomplete.
When people disagree, there needs to be a realistic assessment of common and opposed interests and conclusions. It is often expected that each party will sacrifice some of the opposed interests so that the common benefits, concerns, advantages, and needs may be met and built upon. To obtain a realistic assessment of common and opposed interests it is necessary to see the situation from the perspective of the other parties. Social perspective-taking is the ability to understand how a situation appears to another person and how that person is reacting cognitively and emotionally. The opposite of perspective-taking is egocentrism or being unaware that other perspectives exist and that one’s own view of the situation or issue is incomplete and limited. Overall (see Johnson & Johnson, 1989), perspective-taking results in more information, both personal and impersonal, being disclosed; increases the capacity to phrase messages so that they are easily understood by the other; increases accurate comprehension of the other’s messages; increases understanding and retention of the other’s information and reasoning; facilitates the achievement of creative and high- quality problem solving; and promotes more positive perceptions of the interaction, the other person, and the joint cooperative efforts. Once people can view the issue and situation both from their own perspective and the other persons’ perspectives, they can more easily find mutually beneficial solutions. Perspective-taking also communicates that one really understands their thoughts, feelings, and needs. It is usually easier to jointly solve a problem when the other people feel understood and respected.
There are five important aspects of perspective-taking. The first is realizing that everyone involved has a unique perspective. No two people will see a situation or issue in exactly the same way.
The second is that a person’s perspective selects and organizes what the person attends to and experiences. Because all experiences are understood within the perspective in which they are viewed, people tend to see only what their perspective allows them to see. Change a person’s perspective and you change what the person attends to and the way the person interprets the events in his or her life. Perspectives, furthermore, can create bias. Out of a mass of detailed information, people tend to pick out and focus on those facts that confirm their prior perceptions and to disregard or misinterpret those that call their perceptions into question.
The third is that people can have different perspectives at different times. As your job role, experiences, assumptions, physiological states, and values change, your perspective will change. When you are hungry, for example, you notice all the food in a room. When you are not hungry, the food tends not to attract your attention.
Fourth, the same message can mean two entirely different things from two different perspectives. A person’s perspective largely determines how a message will be interpreted. The same message may be interpreted as friendly teasing or as hostile insubordination depending on the perspective of the receiver.
Fifth, misunderstandings often occur because we assume that everyone sees things from the same perspective as we do. If we are interested in sports, for example, we often assume that everyone is interested in sports. Or if we like horses, we assume everyone likes horses.
To solve problems and resolve conflicts constructively participants need to understand each other’s perspectives. Doing so will help them get a clear understanding of all sides of the issue, an accurate assessment of their validity and relative merits, and the ability to think creatively to come up with the potential solutions that maximize joint outcomes and fulfill the interests of all participants. All this requires them to see the issue from both their own and the other persons’ perspectives, and keep both perspectives in mind at the same time as they search for a solution. This is difficult, given that different people have different perspectives, each person may have different perspectives at different times, the same message may be interpreted differently depending on the receiver’s perspective, and misunderstandings often occur because we assume that everyone has the same perspective as we do.
Accurately understanding the cognitive and affective perspective of others results in several positive outcomes. First, perspective-taking, by influencing how messages are phrased and received, improves communication and reduces misunderstandings and distortions.
Second, perspective-taking is essential for a realistic assessment of common and opposed interests and an accurate assessment of their validity and relative merits. This understanding is required if participants are to reach an agreement based on deciding which opposed interests need to be sacrificed so that the common benefits, concerns, advantages, and needs may be built on.
Third, a broader view of the issue results from being able to take the other person’s perspective. If you want to influence the other person, you also need to understand empathetically the power of his/her point of view and to feel the emotional force with which he or she believes in it.
Fourth, engaging in perspective-taking tends to improve the relationship with the other person. You are more liked and respected when the other person realizes that you are seeing his or her perspective accurately and using it to create potential agreements that benefit both sides equally.
It should be noted, however, that when the interests of parties are directly opposed, perspective-taking tends to result in increased conflict and disagreement. Perspective-taking is most helpful when there are multiple issues under discussion or when the conflict has multiple dimensions that may be combined in creative ways.
Perspective-taking is the neglected secret of constructive problem solving, negotiations, conflict resolution, higher-level cognitive and moral reasoning, and most other aspects of human interaction. While it is not always easy or comfortable to do, it is essential for building and maintaining constructive relationships. Teaching children how to take others’ perspectives is a needed aspect of schooling and socialization. Becoming skillful in taking the perspective of others will tend to significantly improve the quality of one’s life.