Google the term “essential skills for success” and you’ll get over 490 million results, with most of them consisting of lists. The top 5 essential skills for success, the 10 essential skills for success, etc. And in most of these lists, perspective taking isn’t in there. I think that this is a big mistake.
Perspective taking is an essential skill in almost all aspects of business. From sales and marketing, to negotiations and employee management, perspective taking is a key component for a leader’s success.
What Is Perspective Taking?
Perspective taking is the ability to take on someone else’s point of view when thinking. It’s a simple concept, and it’s something that most of us do all the time, mostly without even thinking about it.
One study analyzed the way in which people gave directions to a landmark. Not surprisingly, the directions they gave depended on whether the person asking was perceived as being out of town or a local. Out of towners were given much more detailed directions because the person assumed that they were less familiar with local landmarks and how to navigate the city. Locals were assumed to know the general layout of the city and how to navigate within it.
We are always collecting data about other people’s state of mind through their behaviors, verbal, and non-verbal cues. If someone has tears in their eyes, we assume they are upset. We understand that hyperventilation, fast talking, and anxiety can mean that the person is panicked. Their tone of voice can convey anger, sympathy or happiness. These are all social cues that we instinctively process and use to formulate socially acceptable responses.
For example, if a friend expresses sadness because their football team lost, then a joke may be an appropriate way to snap them out of it. But if they are sad because a family member has just died, showing them support is going to be a better response.
You may be reading this and saying to yourself that perspective taking is just another term for empathy; but there are very distinct and important differences, especially in a business setting.
Empathy Vs. Perspective Taking
Empathy is the ability to take on and relate to someone else’s feeling or emotions. Perspective taking removes all the emotional aspects and is strictly concerned with how the other person perceives a situation. This is a very important distinction in a professional setting.
Studies have shown that people who negotiate with empathy end up giving away more and getting less than people who negotiate through perspective taking.
Perspective taking, according to a study published in the April 2008 issue of Psychological Science, involves understanding and anticipating an opponent’s interests, thoughts, and likely behaviors, whereas empathy focuses mostly on sympathy and compassion for another.
“Perspective takers are able to step outside the constraints of their own immediate, biased frames of reference… Empathy, however, leads individuals to violate norms of equity and equality and to provide preferential treatments.”
In general, perspective taking works better in business settings, and empathy works better in a social setting.
How to Develop Perspectives
Perspective taking is, to some degree, an innate human characteristic. Most of us can understand when someone is in a bad mood, angry, or excited, and we can anticipate their behaviors based on those factors.
It’s fair to note that there is a subgroup of people who have social deficits that can make perspective taking more difficult or even impossible (some personality disorders, autism, etc.), but for the most part, perspective taking is an innate ability that can be sharpened and honed as a skill.
Try this experiment:
With your dominant hand snap your fingers for 5 times. Now with the other hand, trace the capital letter E on your forehead. This little trick is designed to measure how well you take other people’s perspectives into account.
If your E faced the left side of your body, it would be easy to read from someones else’s perspective. If it faced the right side of your body, it would be easy for you to read. It’s certainly not definitive, but a fun little exercise.
Now, for those of you whose “E” faced the right side of your body (full disclosure, I’m included), here are some ways to develop your perspective taking skills:
- Consciously put aside your feelings so that you can concentrate only on the other person’s perspective.
- Do not approach the situation with a “mission” mindset. Always approach with curiosity: “What is it that makes them to act this way?”
- Use open ended questions that can help you draw out the interests and motivation that the person may not be verbalizing.
- Be clear about your own position and the weaknesses it has.
- Remove any personal intentions you may have so as not to project them on the other person.
- Use what you know about the person, their background, their mood, their intentions and expectations. Imagine how they are seeing the current situation.
- Once you have an understanding of their perspective, try to anticipate what their reaction will be so that you can adjust your responses in order to move them towards the outcome you desire.
- Validate their position (you don’t have to agree with it) by paraphrasing back to them what you think their position is.
- Use the mirroring technique, mimicking movements, postures, and facial expressions to put them at ease and create a connection.
Perspective Taking and Personality Types
When we talk about perspective taking, the more information we have about someone, the better. Understanding the basic personality types (in business) will help you to understand another’s perspective and the best way to interact with them.
These people are orderly, precise, and tend to be “by the book” procedurally. They are often described as low key, quiet, and reserved.
Their offices are often sparse with few plants or pictures. They can be dry and impersonal when interacting with others.
How to Approach Them
Analytical personality types tend to be uncomfortable with small talk and personal interactions. Be sure to give them their space. They respond to evidence-based arguments and like facts. Be prepared to make logical arguments that can be backed up with data.
Someone with a driver personality will be very result-oriented. They tend to be very high energy, impatient, and controlling.
Their offices can reflect their personality with large desks and clocks that are strategically placed and only visible to them. Their walls are often decorated with awards and pictures of famous or important people.
When interacting with them, they can come off as loud and aggressive.
How to Approach Them
Because drivers are result-oriented, keep small talk to a minimum. Don’t be afraid to match their assertiveness, but don’t try to dominate them. Driver personalities like to have more than one option to choose from.
These are the proverbial team players. They typically have excellent social skills and are good listeners.
When interacting with an amiable personality, they come off as warm, caring, and relaxed. They tend to dress and decorate their offices with bright colors that project positive energy.
How to Approach Them
You should approach the amiable personality on an emotional level. They like small talk and the ability to connect on a more personal level. They tend to be noncommittal and make slower, more contemplative decisions. They are emotional decision makers and can be very loyal customers.
These people are the life of the party! They’re outgoing, not afraid of the limelight, and have a positive outlook on everything. Expressive personalities tend to be very high energy and very enthusiastic about goals.
Their offices tend to be brightly decorated, and it’s not unusual for a lot of clutter to accumulate. They are often seen dressing more flamboyantly and wearing a lot of jewelry and accessories.
When interacting with them, they will speak quickly using a lot of hand gestures, jokes, and stories to get their point across.
How to Approach Them
Expressive personalities react well to enthusiasm and fun. It’s important to listen to them closely as their stories and jokes will let you know where they are coming from. They respond well to the use of vibrant language and subjective statements (I feel, I think, etc.). Don’t argue with an expressive personality and try to close the sale quickly as they can make decisions quickly.
Using Perspective Taking to Succeed at Work
When you break it down, almost every aspect of business involves an element of negotiation. In sales, you are negotiating with customers, and with employees the negotiations can be about compensation and, internally, sales, marketing, accounting and human resources all need to negotiate amongst themselves.
By honing your perspective taking skills, you are much more likely to come up with solutions that are acceptable to all parties.
For example, a client balks at buying your latest product because it’s too expensive, and your bosses won’t let you discount it because it the latest and greatest. Try putting aside your interest in making the sale so you can better understand the perspectives of both sides.
Your bosses are afraid that if they lower the price, it will set a precedent and future customers will demand the same price. The customer’s objection is that they can’t afford it because they don’t have the money in their budget.
Now that you have taken your own interests out of the equation, you can concentrate on finding a solution that is acceptable to both parties. It may be that the customer doesn’t have the money in this quarter’s budget, but next quarter they will. You and your bosses still want to see the sale in this quarter, though. This is your opportunity to really shine.
There are several possible solutions that could be acceptable to both parties:
- “Book” the sale this quarter and accept payment in the next quarter.
- Book the sale now with 50% down and 50% next quarter.
- See if management is willing to extend credit and accept monthly payments.
- Use an outside funding source as an option for the customer.
- Protect the customer from any planned price increases by getting a commitment today.
The solution may lie in any one of these, a combination of them, or in something completely different. It’s all dependent on the perspectives and motivations of each party and your ability to accurately assess them.
The Down Side of Perspective Taking
We’ve talked a lot about the benefits of perspective taking and how you can use it to become more successful in your career. However, just like everything else, there is a potential down side that you should be aware of.
Most people are not very good at gauging their own abilities. This is especially true with perspective taking.
In fact, a study was conducted with intimate couples who (presumably) knew each other very well. When asked how their partner would respond to a question, participants were right only about 35% of the time.
If a 35% accuracy rate comes from people who know each other intimately, you can imagine the error rate for those in a business setting.
There’s an old computer programming term that goes by the initials GIGO that stands for garbage in, garbage out. That is to say that if your inputs (knowledge, assumptions and data) are bad, your outcomes are likely to be bad as well. Therefore, if you’re basing your actions on inaccurate information, you’re much less likely to achieve a positive outcome.
People will give you inaccurate information for a number of reasons. The person may not understand what their own motivations are, they may intentionally keep their motivations secret in order to gain an advantage, or they just don’t have the self-awareness to reflect on their own motivations.
There are virtually an unlimited number of factors that can affect a person’s perspective, and it’s just plain impossible to know them all. Some factors are deeply ingrained from childhood.
If someone was raised in a strict setting, they may have a very black and white view of things. Other factors are more transitory. For example, if they got yelled at by their boss this morning, their mood will change, shifting their perspective temporarily. These are all factors that influence a person’s perspective.
While not perfect, perspective taking is an essential skill for success in many areas of life, from a chess match to negotiating geopolitical treaties.
By taking yourself out of the equation, the motivations of your opponent become clearer. Furthermore, by understanding the other side’s true motivations, you’re in a better position to anticipate their responses and offer them an acceptable compromise.
With the use of perspective taking, all parties can walk away from a negotiation feeling satisfied. This type of win-win scenario lays a good foundation for continued partnerships and sales. It also doesn’t hurt that if you’re the one doing the perspective taking, you’re likely to end up with a better outcome.