Want to be more empathetic? Try “perspective getting”

by | Aug 9, 2020 | Blog | 0 comments

Are you still following the principles of Dale Carnegie’s best-seller How To Win Friends and Influence People first published 84 years ago?

If so, it’s time to update your playbook, especially around Principle 8. Principle 8 is to “Try honestly to see things from the other person’s point of view.”

According to Carnegie, the formula for interacting effectively with other people is to “know their minds.” When you shift your perspective to another person – known as “perspective taking” – you’re supposedly able to improve your understanding of their situation, possibly even feeling a shared experience.

The conventional wisdom is that perspective taking helps you be more empathetic.

Yet, the science shows this well-intentioned effort can get in the way of adding to your understanding and your ability to be empathetic. Research by Dr. Nicholas Epley, Professor at the University of Chicago and author of Mindwise: Why We Misunderstand What Others Think, Believe, Feel, and Want, and Dr. Sarah Hodges, Professor at the University of Oregon, highlights three major problem areas where perspective taking can backfire.

  • Problem #1 Overconfidence. If you’re too similar to the individual, you can make inaccurate assumptions. For instance, let’s say you went to the same school and worked at the same company at the start of your careers. You assume those similarities give you other insights about the individual, which may not be accurate.
  • Problem #2 Scary Differences. If you’re too different, you can feel threatened by imagining that person’s perspective. You may not be fully conscious of your fear, but it could be lurking in the background making you feel a bit queasy. And when you feel threatened, it’s hard to be open to different ideas, try new actions, and even speak up.
  • Problem #3 Power trip. If you’re too powerful, you can have a hard time breaking your egocentric habits and accommodating another person’s perspective. The classic study that illustrates this involves requesting someone to draw the letter “E” on their forehead so that someone sitting across from them can read it easily. People feeling powerful were nearly three times more likely to fail at this task. They draw the “E” as they would see it – as if they could look at their forehead without a mirror. For more about this as well as other studies about how power erodes empathy, check out the article Power and Perspectives Not Taken from Psychological Science.

As a result, while you may feel that you’re practicing empathy, you may not be drawing an accurate picture. In fact, you may experience the reverse; your perspective taking may be inaccurate and not insightful.

Keep in mind perspective taking may be harder to do in 2020 than back in 1936 when Dale Carnegie’s book first appeared due to many societal changes. Between the two world wars, society was much more segregated than it is today. Women were a small percentage of the workforce, as were Blacks and other people of color, especially in office settings.

Also, companies weren’t as global as they are today so individuals weren’t interacting with co-workers from other countries and weren’t as exposed to so many national cultures.

And we also interact with more company cultures and people too. The sheer number of individuals we work with has increased. Now in our VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous) world, we’re assigned to more teams and we’re collaborating more with co-workers, business partners, suppliers, and others.

To paraphrase the old saying, “If you’ve met one person, you’ve met one person.” We’re all unique.

So if perspective taking is less effective today, what works instead?

Switch to “perspective getting,” advises Dr. Jamil Zaki, one of the premier researchers on empathy and author of The War for Kindness: Building Empathy in a Fractured World.

Perspective getting is all about taking the time to get to know others as individual human beings, not as a category of people. Don’t expect anyone to be the spokesperson for their group identity, such as African-Americans, Latina, women, men, LGBT, Millennials, Gen Z, engineers or whoever.

Ask questions about the experiences of individuals you meet, especially if you’re going to be working with them. Request that they tell you their stories – how they got to where they are now. Listen deeply. Follow up with questions about their feelings, their world view, and their hopes. Be curious without interrogating them.

And keep in mind, if you’ve heard one story, you’ve heard one story. One story is not their entire life story, which is true for you too. Yet by hearing more stories, especially stories from diverse individuals, we can increase our understanding, build stronger connections, and grow our circle of care for more individuals.

Our troubled world can benefit from more empathy now with so much isolation, the continued spread of the coronavirus, economic hardship, racial and social inequities, political strife, environmental challenges and other concerns.

Luckily, empathy is not a fixed trait that we’re born with or not, as research has shown. Instead, as Jamil writes and talks about based on his and others’ research, empathy is a skill that we can improve and sustain through effort by taking intentional and deliberative actions, including perspective getting.

Are you ready to practice being more empathetic by reaching out and getting to know others?


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