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Perceptual positions: powerful exercise to strengthen understanding and empathy

Perceptual positions: powerful exercise to strengthen understanding and empathy

Looking for ways to boost empathy, strengthen communication and relationships, or diffuse conflict?
Looking for ways to boost empathy strengthen communication and relationships or diffuse conflict

When to use it

“Perceptual positions” is an exercise with roots in NLP and an amazing way to build up four things:
first, self-awereness and better understanding of our own perception of the world;
second, empathy and better understanding for others;
third, strengthen the objective view on the situation,
fourth, discover new (cognitive) perspectives and insights into any situation or relationship.

As such, it is a great exercise to use in training related to communication, presentation skills, active listening, conflict resolution, emotional intelligence, leadership, or anything else where deep understanding of the situation and the other person is of importance.

Having an ability to shift between different perceptual positions is all about being able to be empathetic, objective or focus on your own needs and priorities within any given situation – and that shift is what we are practicing through Perceptual positions.

Three basic perceptual positions

There are three basic positions of perception that we can take in any situation: first position (our own shoes, seeing the world through our own eyes), second position (standing in other person’s shoes) or third position (neutral observer).

In the first position, you are looking the world through your own eyes, you are processing it through your own “map of the world”, through your own values, beliefs, emotions, and your own needs and feelings are in the center of your thinking. The first position is your direct experience of the situation.

The second position is the position of empathy – it means that you are “standing in other person’s shoes” and perceiving the world through their needs, desires, emotions and perceptions and watching the world and events taking their “map of the world” into account. It is also direct experience of a situation but from someone else’s position.

The third position is one of neutral observer – this position is all about noticing other people involved but looking at all that is going on from a neutral stand, without much emotional involvement and without being tangled in our own (or other persons) needs.
In the third position you see and hear yourself and others outside of you as if on a theatre stage. The third position allows a bit of distance and clarity but also better understanding of the relationship that is playing our between the people involved.
This third position is useful if when you want to shift from emotionally charged experiences to get an objective view. It is also useful for stepping back and getting insights into situations and seeing and hearing the bigger picture.
It is a detached position, in which we are experiencing the situation in indirect way.

Flexibility to shift between these three (as well as other) positions – to take on our own perspective for a moment, but then also see a perspective of other people involved in the situation, as well as the perspective of a neutral observer, really allows us to understand each situation much better and to be more flexible in our behaviour.

However, if we want to go a level deeper into understanding our communication and relationships, we can also explore the fourth perceptual position – it is a position of observing the observer. It gives us even deeper insights, more impartiality and understanding that our “observer position” is not as objective as we thought.

How to do Perceptual positions exercise in a training

A word of caution
Please, if you share this exercise with anyone, make sure to also share this explanation how to do it well and proper – don’t make it become one of those exercises of great potential that are being miss-used by being used superficially and without understanding 😉
Goes without saying – test and explore it well on yourself before doing it with your participants.

Before the exercise, you will need to briefly explain the idea of 4 positions in which we can put our perception – 1st (our own shoes), 2nd (other persons shoes), 3rd (observer, like a fly on the wall), 4th (observer of the observer – when we do this position, only then we realise that our 3rd is actually much more subjective than we would like to think).
Then a good practice is to give them some WHY this matters – I usually relate it to flexibility in communication (I usually use this exercise in a combination with Map is not the territory idea from NLP or iceberg model of communication but it is not a must), and basically say that the more angles and perspectives they are able to take, the more flexible and adaptable they will be in communication, and most important, they will have more information and understanding of both the situation and the other person.

For the exercise to be realistic, it is easiest to ask them to choose a situation where communication didn’t go very smooth, preferably 1:1 conversation, where there was some misunderstanding, confusion or even a light conflict. Alternatively, they can choose a relationship, but it is a bit simpler and more specific to work with a situation.
For the first try of this exercise, it would be great if situation is something uncomfortable and where they felt there was misunderstanding, but not too dramatic one.
Make sure that they know they won’t need to share situation with anyone, that it is just for them to reflect on and then share conclusions that won’t reveal anything about content of the situation.

Once they have the situation, you simply guide them (preferably with their eyes closed) through each of the positions – starting with 1st, going to the 2nd, then 3rd and in the end 4th.

The absolutely crucial thing is to do a good transition between positions! That means to clear out any “leftover” emotion or impression from the previous position.
This is really important, otherwise they might transfer some of the emotional state from the previous position. You can do this in multiple ways – I usually ask them to stand up and stretch and take a deep breath and shake off any emotion, and, if possible, to change their location in space with each positions. Optionally, you can tell them why this is important, as that also might help the process.

The questions for each position are a bit different – we focus on emotions and thoughts mainly in our own position, and in 2nd we try to go more with things that we have some information on (and not “mindreading”)

In the first position, ask:
What makes it difficult?
What are you thinking and feeling in this relationship?
If you feel challenged, what neurological level does this challenge seem to conic from?
Is it about your environment – where you work, the friends you have, your clothes, etc?
Is it about behaviour – wha t you do?
Do you feel your skills and competence are being challenged?
Do you think your beliefs and values are being challenged?
Do you feel yourself assailed on the identity level?
Is the other person saying one thing, but conveying something else in their body language?

When you have explored this, shake off that second position and come back to yourself in the present moment.

Then, have them take on the second position. In the second position, explore:
As the other person, what do you think and feel?
How do you see yourself in the relationship?
How do you react?
Which neurological level are you concerned about? Does the other person (you) in this relationship seem to be congruent?

When you have explored this, ask them to shake off that second position and come back to yourself in the present moment.

Invite the into the third position and in the third position,
Consider both sides of the relationship in a detached way. What sort of relationship is it?
What do you think of yourself (first position in the relationship)? How do you feel towards yourself in this relationship?

Once you have some insights from the third position, make sure they come back to themselves in the present moment.

Then, have them take a further outside position (a fourth position).
From this point of view, think about how your third position relates to your first position.
For example, in third position were you angry with yourself? Resigned about the situation?
Wishing your first position would assert themselves more? Feeling that your first position should be less assertive?
Notice how your third position relates to yourself in first position.

Make sure to shake of the fourth position after you finish – by a quick stretch, movement, or literally shaking their arms and saying “oki, let’s shake off this perspective now.”

Debriefing is key

You definitely wanna do a very proper debriefing for this one – it is not the type of exercise where you can rush to the next “chapter”, as there might be some emotion or confusions left from the exercise. You can start by asking them which position was easiest for them, and which one was biggest surprise and had strongest insights? Which one gave them most interesting new info about this specific situation? And how was 4th and what did they discover in 4th (4th often gives most interesting insights, although each person has their own “preference”)?
Then, you might choose discuss when is most useful to use each of the positions (eg. 3rd and 4th for objectivity, 2nd for empathy, 1st to keep own needs and goals in mind..)

Remind them that they can do the same exercise later on their own; but that they should be careful with transition between positions, to make sure they don’t transfer the emotions but to make a proper break between each of the positions – it is even better if they can change positon in space for the next positions, such as use 2nd chair for 2nd position, and stand in a corner for observer – this can be a bit complicated to do in training, depending on number of participants and space outline – but it is also a valuable tip to give them if they do it later on their own)

In the end, share with them that the idea is that they develop capability to switch between positions within active conversations, but that a great start is to practice it by reflecting on previous conversations, or in neutral situations with no high tension.

Longer term perspective

Ideally, what we wish to achieve over the longer term is to strengthen our flexibility in shifting between the four perceptual positions and in that way create a more balanced outlook on situations in every day life, as well as use it as a tool in specific situations in which we would benefit of a broader or more comprehensive perspective, or perhaps a better understanding of others or more objective point of view.

Next time you feel a bit stuck in a situation, try it out – think about how would some other person think about that situation, or try to notice what you can discover about the situation by taking a position of the neutral observer.
If you need more objectivity in a given situation, step to an analytical third position. If you are over analyzing, step to experiential positions first. If you would like more empathy with another step to second position and see and hear from another’s perspective. If you seek to learn quickly use second position and associate to the perspective an expert. Play with shifting the perceptual positions – and especially try to explore those that come less naturally to you.

This is also a great exercise to use in coaching.

Do tell us – how did it work for you?
Have you tried this exercise, being in training or for yourself? Any valuable insights.
Do share your experience, we would love to hear it 🙂

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