I recently spent a week in Manila with one of my favorite clients. The trip was fantastic, but getting there was, to put it mildly, a bit of a nightmare. After many hours of hopelessly boarding and deplaning a Hong Kong-bound 747, the flight was eventually canceled. Following the announcement, all 500 passengers began rocking back and forth, mumbling to ourselves, “I’m going to miss my connecting flight!” “I’m going to miss my daughter’s wedding!” “Forty people are counting on me to be in Manila, and now they’ll have to postpone their leadership program!” (I’ll let you guess which one was me).
Tears, rage, and a general sense of panic filled the air. A harried airline representative led our angry mob from the gate to a ticketing area. When we saw just four people behind the counter, we knew it would be a long afternoon. When my turn finally came to talk to an agent, I was told, “I’m so sorry Dr. Eurich, but I can’t get you to Hong Kong today.” Just as I was about to start foaming at the mouth, I noticed the fear in the agent’s eyes.
Suddenly, I wondered what his day had been like. “Were you scheduled to work this afternoon?” I inquired. “No, ma’am,” he responded, pointing to his colleagues, “All four of us were heading home for the evening but were called back in. I was supposed to pick my kids up from school because my wife is out of town. I’ll probably be here until 10pm.”
I’d been feeling pretty sorry for myself, but I now also felt terrible for him. I asked if the other passengers had been yelling at him. He nodded, “People get so wrapped up in their own needs that they forget we’re people too.” The poor guy was just trying to do his job!
The agent rebooked me for the next day, gave me a hotel coupon, and sent me on my way. I noticed that considering his perspective had improved my mood. Instead of yelling like everyone else, I kept my cool (at least relatively speaking).
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The act of putting ourselves in another person’s shoes is called perspective-taking. It’s related to but distinct from empathy. Whereas empathy involves experiencing others’ emotions, perspective-taking means imagining what others are thinking and feeling. Perspective-taking has a host of benefits. It makes us more likely to help others, more understanding and charitable about people’s mistakes, and even more successful when we’re negotiating.
When I arrived at the hotel where the airline booked me, I was enjoying my brief moment of inner peace that, unfortunately, didn’t last long. After waiting in line for an hour, I was told the hotel didn’t have a room for me. Then, right there in the lobby, I started crying. It wasn’t just a stray tear, it was a full-on ugly cry (in my defense, I’d been awake for nearly 24 hours).
All of a sudden, a hand holding a tissue appeared in front of me. It belonged to a concerned-looking hotel manager. “Oh honey,” she said as she led me to her desk, “what happened?” Between sobs, I shared my saga with this angelic stranger. “That’s just awful,” she said earnestly, “I’ve never had that happen to me, but I can imagine how exhausted and stressed out you must be.”
Not only did she find me a room, she showed me the great impact we can have when we take the time to understand one another.
Sadly, though, I don’t meet many people like the hotel manager (myself included). Especially in high-stress situations, we cling to our needs and concerns, rarely considering anyone’s perspective besides our own. Case in point: When my flight to Hong Kong was canceled, I overheard one woman shout, “You don’t understand. My family is waiting for me in Hong Kong! What about the people on this plane who have somewhere to be?” Another passenger snorted, “Um, ma’am, every single person on this plane has somewhere to be.” I imagined everyone nearby mentally high fiving him.
Are we all doomed to be self-centered jerks? Not necessarily. The problem is that these reactions typically occur so quickly that we’re not aware of them. Our increasingly self-absorbed world just compounds this problem. One recent study showed sharp drops in young people’s perspective-taking ability over the last 40 years, but before you malign the millennials, I believe these data are more likely reflective of an overall societal trend than an indictment of young people.
Our self-centered nature reaches new levels at work, particularly for people in power. Professor Adam Galinsky and his colleagues have found that leaders are especially unlikely to think about how their employees will feel when making decisions, a finding which I’m sure is enthusiastically echoed by everyone with a horrible boss.
Over-relying on our own perspective is dangerous because it causes us to exaggerate our differences. As a timely example during a tense election season, one study found that Democrats tend to believe that the average Republican is more conservative than they really are, and vice versa. Perhaps that’s why our country is at a standstill on issues including the size of government, healthcare and immigration. We often see “the other side” as irrational or immoral (an effect called the “sinister attribution error”) and forget that their views are based on different, yet equally fair, beliefs.
Here’s the bottom-line: if we want to create a better, more cooperative world, we could all stand to sharpen our perspective-taking skills.
Like any skill, improving perspective-taking requires awareness and practice. One actionable tool is what psychologist Richard Weissbourd calls “Zoom in, zoom out.” In emotionally-charged situations, start by “zooming in” on your perspective to understand it. Next, “zoom out” and consider the perspectives of others involved. Though it was a happy accident, I used this tool with the ticketing agent. The result was a deeper appreciation of the situation and a calmer mindset.
For those of you seeking an extra boost, you can try considering the other person’s perspective first. In one study of managers handling a layoff, those who took their employees’ perspectives first treated them with the most respect and compassion.
Though my trip to Manila tested my patience, it was a powerful reminder. To paraphrase the late, great Stephen Covey, to be highly successful, we must strive to understand others before we try to be understood. We could all stand to be more like the hotel manager and less like the angry mob of airline passengers. The next time you encounter someone whose perspective feels difficult to appreciate -- the friend with polar opposite political beliefs, the ticket agent rebooking your flight, the refugee halfway around the world -- maybe it's time to make a different choice.