Taking multiple perspectives
Gregory Bateson, a California-based British anthropologist (1904-1980) said “Wisdom comes from multiple perspectives”.
We all encounter difficult relationships or contexts from time to time. Two of the key themes that run through this book are:
- the benefits of thinking systemically, and
- the need to understand the underlying drivers and motivations of stakeholders before we attempt to do anything.
The Perceptual Positions model incorporates both of these themes, and enables us to increase our confidence and skill in getting a breakthrough in all forms of challenging scenarios. It does this by:
- Widening our perception of the dynamics influencing the presenting issue
- Providing a mechanism to separate emotion from a potential response
- Eliciting a deeper understanding of the beliefs and values that cause someone to do what they do
- Providing more choices of action as a result of the richer information.
The basic idea is very simple and consists of 4 mental “positions” or perspectives:
- First Position: Our own thoughts, feelings, beliefs and attitudes.
- Second Position: Metaphorically stepping into each of the other stakeholders’ worlds … seeing, hearing and feeling the situation as if we are that other party. The key to gaining significant insight from this position is to leave our own view of the world behind long enough to enable a full appreciation of the other’s perspective, without judging it from our own values systems.
- Third Position: Imagining that we can step outside of the relationship and can see both parties objectively, as if we are an independent observer. A test for confirming that we have successfully attained this position is that the only feelings we have are those of an independent observer, looking in on the situation.
- Fourth Position: Taking the wider systems perspective. In other words noticing how this specific relationship or issue is linked to other systems and relationships, and creates ripples and effects in them.
As we consider these potential perspectives, most of us find that we are stronger and more comfortable in some of them compared to the others. For example, someone like me who had a relatively unhappy childhood may have (unconsciously) learned to cope by developing a preference for 2nd and 3rd positions. These would make for an easier life by conforming to the needs of others in 2nd position, or by acting as an observer on life – and therefore not directly connected to whatever is actually going on – in 3rd position.
In practical terms, once we recognise where our particular strengths are, we can practise getting in to the other, less familiar positions. The ideal is to be able to flexibly move between all four, depending on the prevailing circumstances. The following exercise to work with the first three positions will usually provide additional information upon which a new choice of action can be made:
Additional notes to assist in running this exercise
- When considering 1st position for the first time, not much needs to be discussed because – by definition – the person doing the exercise already knows the subject pretty well!
- If insufficient new ideas have been generated, it’s worth going back to 2nd or 3rd position and trying again.
- As our confidence in adopting the three positions increases, we can add the 4th position as an extra step after the 3rd position.
- In a case where no new insights arise, breakthrough often occurs if the concept of Unconscious Positive Intention is introduced while in the 3rd position phase of the process. In brief, the idea is to assume that there is a positive intention in the situation that is being hidden by the more obvious negatives – and that all we need to do is discover what that is. Oddly it’s not necessary for the positive intention to be real – it just needs to be feasible.