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Have you ever walked in someone else's shoes?

There is an old saying, ‘you can’t really understand another person’s experience until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes.’ Personally I believe a mile is too far – we need to be able to dip in and out of someone else’s perspective and not stay there for prolonged periods.

The ability to step into another’s shoes creates more awareness about us, and about others. Our ability to take on different perspectives and different points of view enhances the description we have for something. Our ideas or experiences are greatly affected by the point of view or perspective from which we consider them.

There are at least three different perspectives we can take (perceptual positions). These refer to the points of view taken when considering the relationship between us and another person.

In the first position: We are looking at the world out of our own eyes; hearing with our own ears; and feeling, tasting and smelling using all our senses. We are associated with our own point of view, beliefs, and assumptions. I am being me, you are being you!

In the second position: We are experiencing another’s psychological state, perception, and viewpoint through our own senses. To take second position, we must associate with the other person’s point of view, beliefs and assumptions, and see the world through their eyes. We are in the other person’s ‘shoes’.

In the third position (or observer): We are acting as an observer, watching what is happening, and possibly forming opinions about the subject of observation. We are dissociated from the relationship between ourselves and the other person, and simply observing the interactions of these two people. 

When we move from position to position, always go to second position via third, and return from second to first via third. Never go directly from first to second or second to first, as this can cause contamination of either position.

The ability to switch points of view and take into account multiple perspectives of a situation or experience enriches the information we are able to tap into.

We can often spend our lives inhabiting one position (and not necessarily first position), which means we are limited in the amount of information we can collect and use and limited in our flexibility in responding to others. 

With practice we can learn to live in first position as our home base, and move to third and second position to gather information in our interactions with others.

Working with other people (in any role or any industry) involves gathering as much information as we can about the people around us and their needs. It involves discovering more about their values, their beliefs, and their perceptions of themselves. Being able to move through the three perceptual positions will help to build rapport with people more readily, clarify your understanding of their perspectives, and help to understand what we don’t know about them.

Here are some suggestions:

  • Think about someone you regularly interact with and practise moving from first position, to third position (observer), to second position, back to third, and then to first position (back to you). Notice what you notice from each position. 
  • Think of a challenging meeting you have to attend and put yourself fully into first position by imagining that the people from that meeting are here right now and you are looking at them through your eyes. Now view the relationship as an observer from third position. Observe the interaction of the attendees of the meeting, including yourself, as if you were observing a video of the meeting. Now imagine that you are in another attendee’s shoes, in second position. Look at yourself from their eyes. Assume the perspectives, and body language of that attendee as if you were them for a moment. Repeat for the other attendees. Review the information you have gained.
  • Notice how taking different perceptual positions changes your perception of an experience. 

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Maree Burgess works with Leaders, Leaders of Leaders, Experts and anyone else looking to increase their skills in leading change, sponsoring projects, build their confidence to step into more senior roles.

She is an author of “The XX Project: Giving women the skills and confidence to step up in corporate”. You can order your copy here.

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