- Perspective-taking involves three steps: mental flexibility, intentionality, and adoption of another person’s view of things.
- Taking someone else's perspective often means asking more questions rather than defaulting to one's own interpretation.
- Perspective-taking is a key component of empathy.
We have all probably heard a variation of the phrase “don’t judge others until you walk a mile in their shoes.” The meaning of it is to take time to imagine what life is like for other people before claiming to know what is best for them.
Why do we need to be reminded of this? Because walking in another’s shoes sounds simple, but it is not. Stepping into someone else’s world involves the component of empathy that is known as perspective-taking.
What is perspective-taking?
From an academic view, perspective-taking is the “mental flexibility to intentionally adopt the perspective of the other” (Decety, 2005, p. 144).
These 10 words involve a lot of effort. First is the thoughtful engagement of thinking about the situation of another person by bending our mind to step out of our frame of reference and instead take the view of someone else. That’s the step of “mental flexibility.” Then there is the “intentionality” of doing so, that’s the decision we make to take the time and make the effort to step into the place of another. And finally, there is taking action to “adopt the perspective” of others, which is actively seeing the situation from the view and experience of someone who is separate and different from ourselves.
How can we “do” perspective-taking?
When we fully engage in perspective-taking, we do so without imagining an interpretation that fits us instead of the other person. For example, I used to work with a colleague who was kind and generous, and very extroverted. I am much more of an introvert. If I was feeling overwhelmed with working on a project, she would genuinely be concerned and then recommend how I might alleviate my stress, such as go out with friends to dinner, go to a movie, or even change projects to join a group so I would have collaborators. Just about every suggestion she would make reflected her experience of what would work for her, but not for me. She was kind and concerned but was terrible at walking in my shoes. I usually need quiet downtime to regenerate and de-stress. The idea of engaging in the activities she suggested actually made me feel more exhausted and stressed.
What might have helped me with my colleague? If she could have taken my perspective without interpreting it for herself, that would have been helpful. Maybe she could have asked me questions about whether I'd ever felt this way before, and if so, what I did to change the situation. She might have acknowledged that it was difficult for her to see the world through my eyes, and could I explain more about what I was experiencing. And maybe she didn’t have to make any suggestions, just acknowledge what I was experiencing.
Good news—we all benefit from perspective-taking
The three steps of mental flexibility, intentionality, and adoption of the other person’s view of things all come together so that we can engage in perspective-taking. When we do so, we are using one of the key skills behind empathy. Why bother? Because it can do two things at the same time—it helps us better understand others and can help us better understand ourselves.
Over time, my colleague and I figured out that what I needed was not what she needed, and vice versa. We stopped making recommendations for what to do differently and instead spent more time listening and imaging what the other was experiencing. I knew we had gotten there when after a particularly stressful week she told me to go home, enjoy a quiet weekend, and be sure to take some time for myself. And I told her to enjoy the outings she had planned with lots of other people, grateful that she was not suggesting nor expecting that I join her.
Take the time to walk in the shoes of others but remember to do so without interpreting what it would mean to you. Instead, imagine what it means to the other person. To do so, we have to learn about how our interpretations of situations may fit us but differ for others. What a great way to start the New Year, to take steps to better understand others and at the same time better understand ourselves.
Decety, J. (2005). Perspective taking as the royal avenue to empathy. In B. F. Malle & S. D. Hodges (Eds), Other minds: How humans bridge the divide between self and others, 143–157. New York: Guilford Press.