How to "see ourselves as others see us"; "putting yourself in somebody else's shoes"; "standing back from the situation".
There are three basic positions from which we perceive reality and we unconsciously move between these positions from time to time.
Let us consider these three basic positions to start with.
First position: This is the position that you already take, in which you are associated with your own body. It involves experiencing a situation for yourself, with your own eyes, your own ears and your own feelings.
Second position: This involves experiencing a situation as another party – associated with their body, not analysing what it would be like, but actually experiencing it. You look out through their eyes, hear the sounds that they hear and feel some of the sensations they feel.
Third position: In this third position, you are disassociated. This involves taking an intellectual position without any emotion. Standing back from the situation – cool, calm and collected. You might think of it as 'a fly on the wall'. You can see but you cannot hear or feel.
We probably favour one position above the others. Too much consciousness of first position and we can become selfish, and even arrogant. Two much consciousness of second position and we can lack assertiveness and be too compliant. Two much of a third position and we can be logical but miss out on the interpersonal emotional factors.
Being able to consciously take different perceptual positions during a communication, and especially in negotiations, is a valuable skills capability. It gives us more information about a given situation and much greater flexibility of point of view. It helps us to appreciate the influence of our verbal and non-verbal behaviour on others and improves our understanding of other people.
This is a process you can rapidly learn to do naturally in your head. But for practice it is worth taking the trouble to physically step it out on the floor.
First take six sheets of paper (A4 or legal) and mark them Past, Present, Future and First Position (self), Second Position (other) and Third Position (coach or meta). Or you can download designs here. These allow you to mark anchor positions for different times and different people. If you are using them all at once, there are only five positions – you lay them out as a cross, with 'Self' and 'Present' in the centre.
This approach of taking physically different positions is also used in other systems such as Edward de Bono's Thinking Hats and the Dreamer, Realist and Critic of the Disney Model. We shall return to those on another occasion.
The Perceptual Positions system helps you to play different roles. For example: in a negotiation, take the trouble to study your own position. Both emotional and strategic. Study the other participant from your own perspective.
Now step out of your position (off the Self sheet) and then into the other person's position (onto Other sheet). Every time you move between positions give yourself a little shake, to let go of the state you were in so that you are fully freed to enter into the state of the next position. Now examine the situation from their perspective. Both emotional and strategic (especially emotional – you might be surprised how much you actually know). Study your 'self' from this other person's perspective. What do you learn? How is the situation now different?
Now step right out of the situation into the meta position and study the interchange and relationship between the two parties. This time – no emotion, you are away from the situation. Just cool analysis. Again, what do you learn? If you were coaching these two, what would you suggest?
You might wish to repeat the exercise, stepping into and out of positions until you have a full appreciation of the various perspectives. Then you can make the best choice of what to do next. With practice you can do this naturally in your head as a means of monitoring the situation and deciding what to do next. For example, when giving a presentation you need to be in the flow, to be aware of the audience reaction and evaluating how you are getting on.
When you try it, I expect you will be surprised at how much information about another's perspective you actually carry in your subconscious. Even in your own case (first position) it is helpful to take the trouble to catalogue your thoughts and feelings and to notice what you see and what you hear, including that inner dialogue you might not have been aware of. Remember: as you step out of each of the positions, give yourself a shake to free yourself of the position before moving into the next one. It is then helpful to step out into the third position
and calmly appraise what you have learned, reassess what is going on. You might then like to move around again and see what more you can learn.
When learning the technique it is helpful to have someone to act as coach and formalise the questions "What are you hearing?" "What are you seeing?" "What are you feeling?" Another approach if you have more help available is, rather than you moving between first and second positions, to stand in third position and to place two helpers in the first and second positions (representing you and the other in a transaction) and to coach them to act out a situation. As you get them to behave closer to your perception of the reality, you will be able to observe the interaction independently and even ask them what they are experiencing.
The purpose of the exercises is to develop your skill in taking on each position. But the outcome is for you to develop a mental agility so that you can rapidly try each position as required during a transaction – we don't expect you to start moving round the floor during an important meeting.
When you have explored a situation from these three positions in the present,
you can also explore an earlier state and learn a bit more about how you got to where you are. Then you can move into the future and explore how things might evolve for the parties according to different outcomes from the present situation.
In total, nine positions! I have made you floor tiles for past, present and future as well. Have fun trying it out.
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