Perspective-Taking for Stronger Relationships
Last updated: October 28, 2021
Estimated reading time: 5 min
Imagine this: you’re a department head who’s been advocating to fill staff vacancies on your team. Your boss, the Managing Director, is sympathetic but isn’t pushing as hard you’d hoped they would. Your team is stretched thin—delivering 100% of their goals despite being at 75% capacity—and you’re concerned about burnout and low morale. After yet another check-in without getting the go-ahead to open a search, you’re at the end of your rope. Immediately after the check-in, you go for a walk to clear your head and call a friend to vent. Now what?
It’s human to feel frustrated when we don’t get what we want or need. At work, it’s hard but necessary to find a path forward, especially when we’re navigating relationships across lines of difference and power and trying to move the work along.
In this article, we offer advice and tools on perspective-taking to help you build self-awareness and authentic consideration of others so that you can build stronger relationships and get better results, especially during moments of conflict, tension, and frustration.
Perspective-taking is simple, but it’s not easy. For starters, the more differences between your life experiences and the other person’s, the harder it is to empathize with them. Secondly, when frustration and a rocky relationship are layered on top of those differences, the faster we tend to climb the ladder of inference, jump to conclusions, and act on our biases. Lastly, like any other skill, it’s more accessible to some people than others. Among many other things, it’s influenced by:
- How someone processes thoughts and emotions
- One’s understanding of others’ verbal and nonverbal cues
- Cultural values and norms around communication
- How those values fit within the dominant culture(s) of an organization and society at large
To engage in genuine perspective-taking, it’s important to acknowledge and release your assumptions, biases, and beliefs. You don’t have to let them go forever—after all, our gut instincts and reactions do occasionally serve us well).
To get into the mindset of perspective-taking, start by checking your biases and “short-circuiting” your ladder by asking yourself:
- What beliefs am I holding onto? Where do they come from?
- What data did I filter out because of these beliefs, and why?
- What assumptions can I set aside for now? What meaning did I make that I can reconsider?
Strengths, Pressures, Impact, and Actions
Whether perspective-taking comes naturally or represents an area for growth and adaptation, you can use the following considerations to guide your reflection and inquiry:
When someone’s frustrating you, it’s way easier to focus on their flaws. It’s also the most important time to remind yourself that the person is a whole, multi-faceted human with qualities that you appreciate. This reminder helps you approach the person using the Green Lens, which is about seeing someone’s inherent value.
- What are some things they excel at?
- What do you appreciate about them?
- What do you think they most appreciate about themself?
Think about the internal and external pressures that they might be contending with. Consider what factors could create “drag” for them—what slows or delays their forward movement? These can range from chronic, macro-level challenges like systemic and structural oppression to smaller-scale, temporary, or discrete obstacles, like having a project partner who’s been out sick for the last week. Pressures might not be objectively negative things. They can include feelings of responsibility or accountability that make the work and its impact feel important and high-stakes.
- What do you think they’re worried about?
- What stakeholders do they feel accountable to?
Consider how the pressures play out in their day-to-day life and work. Note that our lenses have limits, so we can never fully know or understand how pressures play out for other people without hearing from them directly. This part of the exercise can help you make meaning, surface assumptions, and identify questions to ask them directly to get to better understanding.
At the same time, consider the impacts that you have felt or observed. For example, if your boss is stressed because their boss consistently gives them complex, last-minute assignments, that may result in them putting things on your already full plate.
Consider their time and energy as well as physical, emotional, or mental well-being. Think about impacts on their work and relationships. Then, ask yourself:
- How do you think the pressures play out in their day-to-day life?
- What might be some unmet needs?
Reflection and perspective-taking are just starting points for finding a path forward. Assess your sphere of control and think about what next steps you might take. How you approach this part depends on the context and the relationship. As a manager reflecting on a direct report, you might lean toward providing support, coaching, or guidance. If you’re in a tricky situation with a manager or colleague, consider strategies for managing up and sideways, like making proposals and sharing feedback.
Reminder: this part of the exercise is about exercising agency and taking ownership of your actions from a place of empathy and compassion, not “fixing” or over-accommodating others.
- What questions might you ask them so that you can better understand their experience right now?
- What can you offer or adjust to meet their needs and/or yours?
- What help or support could you offer?
- What boundaries might you set and communicate?
Perspective-taking in action
Let’s apply this to the example about advocating to staff up your team.
Short-circuiting the ladder
In your frustration and disappointment about waiting for approval from your boss, a story begins to form in your head. You have a belief that it’s hard to get approval to hire because senior leaders don’t value your team’s work (operations) as much as they care about programs. When you pause and reflect, you see that this belief is potentially a holdover from your previous job, where the admin and operations functions were chronically understaffed. Because of that belief, you’ve filtered out the fact that your team has had two new hires in the last two years, amounting to 50% of the total number of new staff.
In thinking about your manager’s strengths, you consider that they are generally receptive to feedback and have advocated for your team a few times in the last year, including for one of the recent hires. You acknowledge that one of the pressures they might be feeling is that there are staff vacancies across multiple teams and their job is to prioritize which ones to fill first. The organization is going through a period of unprecedented growth, and they are responsible for steadying the ship to prepare for it. Also, their boss—the ED—has been out on vacation for the last two weeks, so their plate is extra full. The impact of these pressures is that they haven’t been as present with you. And, they haven’t been as communicative about why it’s taking so long to get approval. You can’t tell if it’s because they haven’t had a chance to slow down or if there’s something bigger going on that they can’t share with you.
After your reflection, you decide to take action by doing the following at your next check-in:
- Ask questions to better understand what’s going on from your boss’s point of view
- Share your concerns and feedback about communication and transparency
- Make a proposal to hire a temp for two months to help your team handle the end-of-year rush as an alternative to hiring a new full-time staff person
Check out our perspective-taking reflection tools!