It was 8:30 at night. I received a call on my cell phone from my dad, asking if I had gotten home from work yet. I told him no, as I had stopped for groceries on the way. I am not usually a “grocery shop late at night” person; however, we were expecting heavy snow the next day, and I thought it best to get it out of the way while the roads were still safe. I kept him on speaker for a few minutes, until I pulled up to my apartment. I then told him I was home and going to unload the car (and presumably require more than one trip to do so, given that I had several things to take inside). He replied, “I’ll stay on the phone until you’re inside.” I had several bags of groceries to carry in, and the wind chill made the temperature feel like 10 degrees at the time. I (as usual) had no gloves on (despite the frigid temperatures), and had the initial thought of it being tough to keep the phone close to my face while maneuvering several heavy items up the stairs. I say this to him. His response: “It’s okay—I just want to know you got in safely.”
Suddenly, I feel a pang of guilt as I start my second trip up the steps with my massive, paper grocery bags. My perception of that situation (up to that point) was, “I am cold and tired, and I am finding it hard to balance the phone in my hands while walking with these bags. I should probably hang up so that I can make these trips up the steps easier.” My father’s perception probably went something like, “My daughter, who lives alone, is unloading her car in the dark…I will feel better knowing she got in safely, so I will stay on the phone, even though she thinks it inconvenient.” (See why I felt guilty?)
The reason why I chose to retell this vignette is not to make you all think that I’m a selfish daughter who is ungrateful for her father’s concern; rather, it was to illustrate the point that I sometimes struggle with empathetic perspective-taking in the moment (like I would assume many do, if they are honest about introspection). We often find it hard to shift perspectives and “put ourselves in another person’s shoes” or “see things from another’s point of view.” However, when we fail too often to stretch our empathy muscles and see things from another’s point of view, we often find that interpersonal relationships become more strained than is necessary.
I like to do a simple perspective-taking exercise with my clients to show them that although someone may not see things the way they do, it does not always mean that the other person is wrong. I give them a couple of optical illusions (much like the one below) and ask them to quietly study them for around one minute per picture. They then write down the first thing they saw, without speaking to any other group members about their perception of the picture. Once everyone has something written for each picture, we reconvene and discuss what each person saw. Sometimes, they are surprised to learn that another client saw something totally different than they did, and they go so far as to ask the other client for help seeing things their way. (This was an interesting takeaway that I noticed the last time I ran this group; I was quite proud of them!) I then have them discuss recent problems that they faced (either at school or home) where the other person did not see things as they did; the next part (as you may have guessed) will be when they talk out what the other person may have been thinking and hence why they acted as they did.
It may seem like a simple exercise (or a simple concept in general), but there is a lot to be said for a simple shift in perspective. The ways in which you may go about teaching a child about perspective-taking are clearly a bit different than the ways in which you may help an adult. Below are some simple tips for people of different ages to sharpen their perspective-taking skills (or hints for people looking to help others with perspective-taking):
Point out the emotions of others to your child: Show your child what someone else may look like when they are sad, angry, happy, etc. Discuss what potential situations may have made this other person feel this way. This will help them link situations to appropriate emotional responses.
Talk openly about your own emotions: Labeling your feelings for children still learning about these concepts is a great practice because it not only teaches them about feelings in general, but also normalizes the discussion of them as something that is healthy, and practiced by healthy adults.
If you notice your child engendering a strong reaction by something they’ve done to someone else, point it out and discuss it: This should not be done simply to punish or penalize the child, but to show them why someone else may have received their words or actions in the way they did (e.g. “How would you feel if someone else took your toy without asking?” If they say “sad, mad,” etc., you then can tell them that the other child may feel that way).
Read stories with multiple characters, and ask the child to discuss the emotions of each one: ask them to discuss things like motives of the different characters, too.
Teach the child how to read body language: Children will one day learn that others may be hiding their true feelings, even when they say to others that they feel “okay.” Much of communication is non-verbal. Help them to see this by appropriately reading others’ body language cues (e.g. Is someone scowling or crossing their arms? Are they smiling or frowning?)
Discuss with teens about other cultures: At this point, the teen has a good sense of the fact that others are not always going to see things the way they do. But to broaden their perspectives even a bit more, try talking with them about people with radically different experiences. How do they think these other people go about their everyday activities? Do they have the same overarching goals, feelings, etc., as the teen?
Consider past experiences of your own, and where you draw information from: If you are an adult struggling to see things from another’s perspective, chances are that there is some history with this person that has possibly primed you (and them) to behave in a certain way. Do you have positive, negative, or neutral feelings towards this person? Have you considered the other person’s intentions/motives in the situation?
Hopefully, you’ve found some of the above ideas helpful for either helping someone else, or yourself, shift perspectives. Regardless of how easy it sounds, it is sometimes hard in the moment when distracted by everyday stresses. Remember that your perception of a situation is your subjective reality; however, someone else will always see things in a slightly different way, based on their own subjective reality. Even if you do not agree with the other person, a little empathy will never hurt a situation.