Nearly everyone has the ability to view a relationship or situation from the perspective of another person, to imagine what that other is seeing, hearing, feeling, and thinking. In fact, we do this all the time – we are continually assessing others’ states of mind, their intentions, what they might say or do next. It’s a mostly unconscious process, a faculty we are born with and continue to develop as we grow.
…we attune to the internal shifts in another person, as they attune to us, and our two worlds become linked as one. Through facial expressions and tones of voice, gestures and postures – some so fleeting they can be captured only on a slowed-down recording – we come to “resonate” with one another.
We come into the world wired to make connections with one another, and the subsequent neural shaping of our brain, the very foundation of our sense of self, is built upon these intimate exchanges …
– Dan Siegel, Mindsight. (Dan Siegel is a psychiatrist, psychotherapist, researcher, and author.)
Even other animals are able to do this; a dog, for instance, shows by its behavior that it is sizing up the mental states and intentions of the people it is around.
Of course we may do this well or sometimes not so well – we can easily be wrong. But this ability that we all have is a key component of our being to relate to one another, to our social interactions.
We can also, most of us, imagine being a neutral third party observer, watching and listening to an interaction between ourself and another person. Doing this, when we do it well, helps temper our personal emotions, assumptions, and beliefs with a more objective perspective.
Each position has its strengths and weaknesses:
If I tend to be in Self position exclusively, I will feel things more intensely, appreciating the good times and detesting the bad; I will tend to be a person who enjoys my own life (or not, if it’s difficult), and I will know clearly what I want and let others know too. On the other hand, I might be perceived as arrogant, self-centered, or selfish (these positions are embedded in our language!).
Someone who prefers Observer position will tend to be less emotional and more objective, but others may seem him or her as cold and unfeeling, unexpressive, and distant.
Being strongly associated into Other position will make you empathetic, sensitive to the feelings and needs of others, but if you’re not careful you may neglect your own wants and needs or even forget what they are – you may allow other people to “walk all over you.”
– Connirae Andreas, teaching materials
The notion of the three “perceptual positions,” Self, Other, and Observer, has been a basic part of NLP (Neuro-Linguistic Programming) since it’s beginnings in the early 70s (and undoubtedly goes back to our beginnings as human beings). Early on in NLP it was assumed that some people’s limitations came from being “stuck” in one position: if I’m stuck in Other, for instance, I would be overwhelmed by other people’s feelings; if I’m stuck in Observer position, I might come off as cold and unfeeling and have a hard time connecting with others. Individuals who are resourceful and flexible, on the other hand, are able to move easily from one position to another, perceiving an interaction from all three perspectives.
Mahatma Gandhi did this purposefully and systematically. Before he negotiated with the British Viceroy, Gandhi would go through various different perspectives: as himself, of course, and as the Indian people. Then he would put himself into the persona of the Viceroy – people who knew Gandhi talked about how he would take the Viceroy’s posture, walking around for hours that way, to really, really get the experience of being the Viceroy and know it. (When you do that you don’t always know, consciously, just what you’re learning or later, exactly how you’re using it.) Then he would take the perspective of the world looking on. Then, after doing all that, he would go into the negotiation.
Studies of managers have described how upper level managers who are effective always demonstrate a fluid ability to assume all three positions, while lower managers or ineffective upper managers do not consistently show that skill. People in all roles, if they have that ability, are more flexible and effective, whatever they do.
– Connirae Andreas, teaching materials
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