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In a world of complexity, diversity, and conflict, we need every tool available to navigate our relationships, find our way through conflict, and understand the people with whom we interact. Fortunately, there is a long-standing, “tried and true,” dependable tool available to us; yet it is often ignored or rejected as too threatening to closely held assumptions, judgments, and biases.

That tool is perspective-taking. Perspective-taking is the ability to see things from other viewpoints, and it can help us to infer or otherwise understand another person’s feelings, thoughts, and views without having experienced them. With perspective-taking, we can accept that a person’s experiences, biases, and expectations may lead them to see situations differently.

Perspective-taking is present at some level in most effective communications and interactions. It is a precursor to empathy; before we can understand and relate to another person’s experiences and emotions, we need to be able to see from their viewpoint. When we understand another person’s perspective, what they are thinking and feeling, we are better able to relate to them and understand their needs. In the words of the late Steven Covey, “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.”

We might think about perspective-taking as having three forms. Perceptual/visual perspective-taking involves inferences about how another person sees, hears, perceives from their physical location. This is the lowest level of perspective-taking and develops earliest in children.  Conceptual/cognitive perspective-taking involves recognizing another person’s point of view, desire, attitude, and intentions. While the importance and utility of this type of perspective-taking seems obvious, its absence is at the heart of much of the conflict we experience in the world today. The third type, affective/social sensitivity perspective-taking, relates to identifying and understanding the feelings of others. This form of perspective-taking can be the most challenging and time consuming. It requires greater patience and understanding than the other forms, but it is also the most powerful form as it features empathy and engagement and often leads to greater levels of caring and deeper commitment.

While perspective-taking at its simplest level is teachable to early elementary school children, it is an important social skill for people of all ages. In fact, it may be more important today than at any time in recent history. Consider these benefits of perspective-taking:

  • Improved communication and reduced misunderstanding. Clarity is the starting point for mutual understanding and trust building.
  • Broader insight into how others view a situation or issue. It is important to recognize that there are multiple ways to view almost anything in life.
  • Reduced bias, faulty assumptions, and misjudgment. Destructive conflict almost always has at its core assumptions, judgments, and biases that confuse and mask what is important and worth resolving.
  • Revelation of mutual and conflicting interests to be considered and resolved. As we gain an understanding of how others view issues and situations, we are better able recognize areas of agreement as well as clarify where interests and motives may diverge. Consequently, we can focus on real issues and work toward worthy solutions.
  • Greater empathy. Until we know how others view their circumstances, we are not in the position to accept, relate to, care for, or support them.
  • Improved self-awareness. Learning how others view issues and circumstances can help us to better understand, evaluate, and appreciate our own perspective.

So, what are some strategies we can use to teach students to practice perspective-taking? Here are some places to start:

  • Have students look at a picture of a person’s face and predict at least two thoughts the person may be having. Ask students to identify clues they used to guess the thoughts they propose. Discuss with students how observation can lead us to speculate but how knowing and understanding requires engagement. Speculating about what a person is thinking is better than nothing, but asking, listening, and seeking clarity is far more effective.
  • Present students with a current issue or topic of disagreement. Follow with open-ended questions: How might there be variance in how someone in this circumstance sees or feels about what is happening? Why might there be more than one explanation for how people will react to an experience? What accounts for your perspective, and how might someone else see it differently?
  • Engage students with case studies featuring conflict from history or lived experience. Coach students as they search for evidence of the absence of perspective-taking and how its presence might have led to the avoidance of conflict and tragedy.
  • Model perspective-taking in real time. For example, we might seize the opportunity when a student or students are struggling to grasp another’s point of view. We might coach with questions such as: Why would they do/say that? How might they see the situation differently than you? What might they know that would help you to understand their behavior? What might you know that would help to resolve the situation?
  • Coach perspective-taking when conflicts occur. Stop the action and ask, “What do you think the other person might be thinking/feeling? How could you find out? How might what you learn shift your thinking?”
  • Invite students to identify misunderstandings and conflicts they have experienced and coach them to analyze how engaging in perspective-taking might have helped to avoid or mitigate the situation.

Perspective-taking may not be a familiar term, but it is an important social skill for our students to learn and practice. Taking time to teach and reinforce perspective-taking can reduce the number and intensity of conflicts in our classes while preparing students for a world in which understanding the perspectives of others is a “must-have” competency.

Thought for the Week

Simply pulling a strategy “off the shelf” or defaulting to the most recently read article or staff development session topic may not generate the results we seek.

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