Perspective-taking

IMy hand holding a jar, in front of our kitchen sink.
To wash or not to wash? That’s not the question. The question is how to even decide.

(If this is your first or second time on my blog, this background info might be helpful for context.)

The Jar Story

Last summer, after living at Zendo56 for maybe a month, I was in the kitchen, getting ready to head to class. I had just finished using a glass jar, and I gave it a brief rinse in the sink then found myself wondering what to do with it at that point. (It’s worth noting that our dishing system includes, by design, an ample waiting area for dirty dishes.)

So the decision I found myself with was: do I put it back in the drawer, as I probably would if I were living on my own, or do I leave it to be thoroughly washed later?

Conveniently Jean was in the kitchen, drinking tea at the table. I turned to her and (with some deliberation so as to avoid merely asking her what I “should” do) asked her for help in deciding.

She posed two questions for me:

  1. If you leave the jar out to be washed, what will be the experience of the next person to interact with it?
  2. and

  3. If you put the jar back in the drawer, what will be the experience of the next person to interact with it?

Whoa. That style of thinking was very new to me, and very appealing.

Taking others’ perspectives

Fast-forward half a year and I use reasoning like in the jar story on a fairly regular basis. I’ve done a lot more thinking about what it means to take others’ perspectives; reading, talking, and thinking about words like “empathy”.

Perspective-taking is related to empathy but is more conscious. You might say that it involves active and intentional use of the same brain circuits that run the empathy networks, to really model other peoples’ experiences. Where the Golden Rule says “do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” perspective-taking as a mindset suggests “understand your own impacts by modelling how others experience your behaviours, from their perspective“. It’s not just walking a mile in another shoes, but walking with their gait and posture.

I’ve come to realize that while I do a decent amount of perspective-taking for basic decision-making contexts, I don’t actually do it much in other situations. This can sometimes lead to confusion around others’ behavior, and can lead to them feeling hurt or otherwise negatively affected by me. At the same time, this very pattern is part of what allows me to avoid having self-consciousness that might restrict my behaviour in ways I don’t want. A large part of what has allowed me to become so delightfully quirky is that I’m not constantly worried about what other people think. And ultimately other people do enjoy this. They’ve told me so, quite emphatically. So I don’t necessarily want to become immensely concerned about others’ perspectives either.

I attended a student leadership conference at uWaterloo yesterday, and one of the sessions was on personal branding and how to create the traits that you want other people to experience of you, in order to achieve your goals. I noted there that perspective-taking would be a valuable skill for any teamwork-related goals, of which I have many. Last night, I found myself asking, out loud, to Jean: what might happen if I were to adopt perspective taking as an intense, deliberate practice for a week. Could I build new affordances for modelling other people and their experiences?

(I’m using the secondary meaning of “affordance”, which refers to an agent having properties such that certain actions feel available to perform.)

Taking the systems(‘) perspective

Jean said “yes, and not just what’s going on for people, but what’s going on for…” and turned slightly to look roughly towards the kitchen table. “…the system!” I thought, and began considering the perspective of the cutting board, the knife. “The system,” she said. I began to talk about the knife and she said, “Not so much just the knife itself but the experience of everyone using the knife.”

Which, of course, brings us back to the jar story.

Taking it to a new level

I decided to do it. To make that a primary focus of mine for this week, both here at the house and with friends and classmates. This is actually part of a larger behaviour-design experiment I’ve created for 2014. My reasoning is that rather than trying to change 50 habits all at once as a New Year’s Resolution, I’ll change 50 habits… in series, one per week.

My first of these was the lowering of the lavatory lid, so chosen because I share a bathroom with a housemate who experiences a raised lid with rather intense anxiety. Also to test-drive this. My second of these was to fix the out-toeing in my gait. Up until about 2 weeks ago, my feet usually had a ~90° angle between them while walking and often while standing.

Each of these has been a fairly solid success. They’re not fully unconscious habits yet, but it no longer takes additional energy to pay attention to them enough to maintain the change (while it becomes an ingrained habit). My third habit (which was to briefly mutter my intention every time I open a new browser tab) didn’t go so well, in large part because I was doing some work early in the week where I totally got into flow and (a) didn’t think of this and (b) would have experienced a net-negative effect from doing it. So I didn’t practice.

Week #4 is going to be perspective-taking. Unlike the first two, I’m not intending for this to produce a “complete” change in my behaviour, but rather to nudge my behaviour some noticeable distance from where it is now. To give me more affordances for taking others’ perspectives, until it starts happening regularly and naturally as part of basic relating with people.

I’ve set up a new page on these habits here.

PS: In case you were curious: I put the jar away.

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About Malcolm

Constantly consciously expanding the boundaries of thoughtspace and actionspace. Creator of Complice, a system for achieving your important goals.

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