On Perspective Taking

Interpersonal Relationships Jul 24, 2020

“If the doors of perception were cleansed, everything would appear to man as it is — infinite.”—William Blake.

What makes us different as human beings and as individuals, from each other, is that we can perceive things the way we want. Let’s understand this with an example. If I get a scholarship to study in States and so does my friend, my friend might perceive the piece of news with jubilation but, I may not. For me, the news can even be distressing, thinking about the amount of effort I’ll have to put in to prepare myself for the journey. Our perspectives on pretty much everything in life speaks volumes about the kind of individuals we are and the kind of individuals we will become.

I have always seen perspective-taking to be a rather powerful tool to connect with people without having to completely agree to what they think, feel, or do. On a personal front, the process of trying to understand someone’s thought-process, feelings, and likely behaviors in different situations is quite fascinating to me. It helps me realize how we’re so similar but different from one another. It reinforces to me the fact that how I perceive the world is just a fraction of the entire reality.

It’s also a given that we can’t at all times openly welcome someone else’s perspectives owing to different factors like the relationship dynamics, the nature of interactions, and the biases we possess as individuals, among others. But, what’s important to remember is, while we may not be comfortable understanding everyone’s perspectives, we can still question ourselves into seeing things differently. I  remember reconciling with a friend over a misunderstanding I had with them for over a year. Initially, I didn’t even want to interact with him because of a hurtful remark he had made about my life choice. When I finally questioned myself in understanding his concerns and perspectives behind the harsh remarks he had made earlier – “What was he truly trying to communicate?” I slowly let go of the grudges that I held toward him. In this sense, perspective-taking can be liberating.

When I talk about perspective taking, I also understand that we don’t necessarily need to agree to the perspectives of others or make others agree to our worldviews. Rather, it’s a process of forming a communion even in our subtleties and differences. This is the beauty of perspective-taking—it teaches us to respect each other’s differences, all the while opening us up to possibilities that can exist beyond our horizons.

I and my younger brother, who is in high school, share a friendly bond. In our conversations, we try to learn from each other. I remember, a few years ago, I had tried to drive him toward reading books. I have found him to be a perceptive person even before he became a teenager, so I thought if he read books, it would help him learn more. Although he did foray into reading for some time, he eventually realized it wasn’t his cup of tea. He found more perceptual stimulation in learning from videos and, in fact, from memes. I’ve seen people look at memes just for fun, but for him, it’s a source to learn from. It’s refreshing to see the perception he has toward memes and how they help him become aware of what’s going around in the world. And, although he doesn’t read much, he still asks me to share interpretations of the books I read.

To be able to learn from the perspectives of others, we need to start by having an open mind. If we are to negate all that doesn’t align with our values or needs, we won’t be able to unlearn old habits, beliefs, and systems to make room for new ones. To be open-minded, therefore, would mean for us to operate from a place of observation rather than from a place of judgment, evaluation, and criticism.

Exercising a beginner’s mind can also help us set aside our old beliefs and learn from the perspectives of others. A beginner’s mind can help us become more open to our experiences. It can help us become curious about ourselves and the people around us. With a beginner’s mind, we learn how to put aside our biases and opinions to stimulate ourselves intellectually, emotionally, and physiologically, in new or improved ways.

An emotional competence that can help us take perspectives better is—empathy. When we place ourselves in someone else’s position and try to understand what they think about certain things, how they feel, and what drives them to make the choices they make—we can put things into perspective in a more connected and coherent way. Perspective-taking further enables us to become more empathetic, as we understand that how others perceive is deep down connected to their needs and feelings.

Different strategies can enable us to become better at perspective-taking. One is to kindle our curiosity by asking open-ended and reflective questions. Reflecting on our own crucial experiences and re-interpreting past happenings, can also help us see things differently. Having conversations with people with an intent to listen, reading, exercising art and sports, listening to music and podcasts, writing, and even humor are helpful strategies that can help us gain perspectives. At the same time, understanding that our belief systems are flawed, just as much as any other belief system in the world, can also be a great ground to gain different perspectives. Self-righteousness and perspective-taking cannot go hand-in-hand.

Perspective-taking has no finitude to it. Just like the mechanisms of exercising perspective-taking, the concept of perspective-taking is limitless too. The better we understand this notion, the more we can open ourselves up to different possibilities, changes, and ways to find meaning in life. Michael Proust put this well in words when he said, “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new lands but in seeing with new eyes.”

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Aprajita Jha

Aprajita Jha is Linchpin at My Emotions Matter and can be reached at [email protected]