Perspective Taking Can Be Taught

I once worked for an organization where monthly board meetings were part of the job. I was the youngest at the board table and felt a need to prove myself. I was strong-willed and opinionated. I never held back my perspective on the topics that were discussed but my ideas were commonly shut down. I figured it was a case of ageism. I figured that once I was older I would be respected more. While I did end up earning more respect over time, it wasn’t my age that stopped the other board members from hearing my ideas. It was how I was showing up to that board meeting. 


With a desire to prove myself, I was forceful with my ideas. 

What I didn’t understand was that the meeting wasn’t about who had the best ideas.  The meeting was about collaboration. I spent all my time advocating for my ideas and I rarely asked questions about the perspectives of the others in the room. The Arbinger Institute found that ineffective teams are heavy on self advocacy and light on inquiry. 

I hadn’t yet learned the value of listening to all of the ideas in the room and then building upon them in a collaborative way. It wasn’t until years later that I realized how you show up at work and in life matters a lot more than what you bring to the table. Even if you have the best idea in the world, it will often fall on deaf ears if you show up with a desire to prove something.


Do you want to be known as someone who always has something to say or someone who asks great questions? 

Undoubtedly we all have had a run-in with someone who is too heavy on self-advocacy and too light on collaboration. The feedback that I received was that I was overly defensive in meetings. While this was accurate feedback, it would have been more helpful to receive some training on perspective-taking for collaboration. 


Do you know how to provide training on skills like perspective-taking?

Perspective is one of the VIA character strengths. However, don’t let that fool you into believing that perspective-taking is something you either have or not. It is a skill that can be taught.  

Imagine for a moment you are asked to describe what you see when looking at a Christmas tree. You say the tree has colorful glass ornaments and white lights. It is big and green and has red gold, white and silver on it. 

Now imagine someone else is asked to describe the same tree when looking at the part that is facing the wall. They say it is sparsely decorated. It has a hole in it where the branches broke off and has just a few old-looking decorations. Which perspective is true?

Both perspectives are true.

The problem with advocating only for your perspective is you miss out on the bigger picture from multiple perspectives.  This is why perspective-taking and collaboration are so important for effective teams at work. 

On top of it all, your beliefs, values, preferences, and past experience color the lens of your perspective. If you are small, the tree might seem big. If you are tall, the tree might seem small. Your perspective is unique and one small part of the bigger picture. 


How do we train our teams on perspective-taking?

Ask your team to consider a project from multiple perspectives (customers, partners, management, etc.) Assign the perspectives you wish for them to take in advance of the meeting so they can spend some time thinking about the perspective that is not their own. Or you can ask them to go talk to customers or management for their perspective on the project and report back. Make this a regular and expected part of every project. 

When we argue for the truth of our perspective we miss out on the opportunity to walk around the tree and see it from all sides. The more we broaden our perspective, the more we see. You may never see the tree the exact way someone else does and perhaps you are not meant to. Perhaps you are meant to share your unique perspective while holding space for the other perspectives in the room and together help the team see more clearly.


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