Which Way Do You See It?

Posted in : HR Updates ROI on 20 March 2014
Mary Rafferty
Consensus Mediation
Issues covered:

Mary Rafferty writes:

Which Way Do You see It?

Here’s a question: what key skill will improve the outcomes of all types of negotiation whether you are buying a car or trying to sort a contentious issue at work?

You might think it’s getting all your arguments clear and well-rehearsed and then sticking hard by them. Yes, it’s good to be clear on your own point of view.

But surprisingly, research shows that better outcomes will result from negotiations for those with a greater capacity for what’s termed ‘perspective-taking’: seeing the situation from the other person’s point of view.

In this article, we will explore:

  • What we mean by ‘perspective-taking’ and why it’s beneficial
  • What inhibits our capacity for seeing the ‘other side of the story’
  • How to test ability to perspective-take - this is the fun bit!
  • How to improve your perspective-taking in your next negotiation or ‘difficult’ conversation

What is ‘Perspective-Taking’ and Why is it Effective?

According to researchers Galinsky et al, 2006, perspective-taking is the ability to consider the world from another person’s viewpoint and anticipate or imagine the emotions, perceptions and motivation of another.

In their research, participants engaged in various negotiation processes – one was in the sale of a gas station, the other between job recruiter and candidate. One group of participants were primed to perspective-take by being told to try and understand what the other side was thinking, what their interests and purposes were. A control group were invited to simply focus on their own role.

Results: the perspective-taking group achieved better outcomes both for themselves and in terms of each side being satisfied with the outcome of the negotiation. “Perspective takers achieved the highest level of economic efficiency, without sacrificing their own material gains” (Galinsky et al., 2008).

As a one of the four Active Constructive skills identified in the Conflict Dynamics Profile, perspective-taking can encompass a number of associated behaviours:

  • Trying to understand how things look from that person’s perspective, putting oneself in their ‘shoes’
  • Asking questions to invite the other person to explain the reasons behind their views
  • Acknowledging the other person’s viewpoint
  • Communicating to them that they understand their perspective

The benefits include gaining increased knowledge about the situation or about other interpretations of the situation. This in turn will open up more options that can be explored and that would make for more mutually agreed solutions. Most importantly, perspective taking also has the effect of making the other person feel you are taking his or her concerns seriously and leads to them feeling more understood and acknowledged.

Perspective-Taking and Empathy

Interestingly, Galinsky et al (2006) differentiate between perspective-taking (trying to imagine what the other person is thinking) and empathy (trying to imagine what the other person is feeling). They conclude from their studies that the former will produce better outcomes than the latter, particularly in competitive or strategic negotiations. Too much empathy for one’s partner negatively impacted on the individual gains in one of studies. However they postulate that empathy does have a key role in situations where emotions might be running high or where the negotiating partners have a long-term relationship.

What Reduces our Capacity to Perspective-Take?

Yet it can be difficult to engage in this kind of behaviour. In particular, if a situation causes us to be annoyed, frustrated or angry with someone, the ensuing physiological stress response has the effect of narrowing our focus. We start to think more about self-survival. Our cognitive capacities to see for example the ‘bigger picture’ are therefore reduced.  

It also diminishes our willingness to want to explore what the other person’s viewpoint. For this reason, when I’m coaching people in conflict, I always preface this question by telling them that it’s for their own benefit. Taking the time to explore and try to understand the other person’s ‘side of the story’ will enhance their own decision-making.

Another interesting finding from the research is that people in a stronger power position have a lower ability to understand how others see, think, and feel. In a series of studies conducted by Galinsky et al, 2006, (one of which is described below), they concluded that “power leads individuals to anchor too heavily on their own vantage point…[and is an] …impediment to empathy”. They postulate is that power is associated with unrestrained pursuit of goals and can lead to viewing others in terms of qualities that will help achieve their own goals and inhibit their consideration of the ‘humanity’ of others (their concerns, emotions and individuality).

You can try this simple test with a colleague or a friend. Ask them first with their dominant hand to snap their fingers five times. Then with the same hand, as quickly as they can, draw a capital E on their forehead. They will either draw it so that you can read it and indicating perspective-taking or back to front demonstrating a self-oriented direction, showing a lower tendency to adopt another person’s perspective. So paradoxically, the more we are anchored in our own sense of power, the less effective our influencing and negotiating powers will be. How to improve perspective-taking skills:

  • Approach the conversation with a curiosity stance – “I wonder what is motivating them to think/act like this”
  • Use open questions to draw out underlying interests and needs beneath positions
  • Reflect on your own situation and see what weaknesses you can identify
  • Visualise yourself in the other person’s place. Try to imagine what the other person is thinking, what might be motivating them, what might be important to them.
  • It can be useful also to try and consider what they might be feeling although Galinsky’s research above found empathy (trying to imagine the other’s feelings as opposed to their thinking) can reduce one’s own individual gains from a negotiation.
  • Paraphrase or summarise back to them what you think it is they are trying to communicate
  • Demonstrate your intentions to perspective-take by acknowledging (not agreeing) with their viewpoint.

While it might not be our immediate tendency, particularly in a contentious conversation, the research is unequivocal on the benefits of trying to understand the ‘other side of the story’.

In the words of Henry Ford “If there is any one secret of success, it lies in the ability to get the other person's point of view and see things from that person's angle as well as from your own….. 

This article is correct at 07/10/2015

The information in this article is provided as part of Legal-Island's Employment Law Hub. We regret we are not able to respond to requests for specific legal or HR queries and recommend that professional advice is obtained before relying on information supplied anywhere within this article.

Mary Rafferty
Consensus Mediation

The main content of this article was provided by Mary Rafferty. Contact telephone number is +00 (353) 71 9651966 or +00 (353) 86 8252423 or email mary@consensusmediation.ie

View all articles by Mary Rafferty