Different ways of looking at a situation

There are three main perceptual positions (ways of experiencing) that we can adopt to further understand situations and events.

These perceptual positions are particularly useful in giving us more information regarding a relationship issue, such as an argument or disagreement that does not progress to a satisfactory resolution.

I frequently use perceptual positions exercises for conflict resolution and during couples counselling.

Changing your point of view is often essential to understand another’s point of view, especially if the default state is conflict.

These different perceptual positions may be described in the following way:

  • 1st Position (Self) is where we are associated into the experience and are emotionally engaged. In this position we see things from our own point of view. This may also be described as ‘self’ position.

This position relates to most people’s every day experience. You are totally associated into the experience, seeing and hearing the world through your own filters. First position provides a personal experience and is undiluted by another’s point of view. High performance sports, intense levels of focus and problem states are all examples of strong first positions.

In these cases an individual is totally absorbed and objectivity is at a minimum.

The more you sense your own physical state: your body, its tactile awareness and inner sensations, the purer the first position state will be. When you have a strong first position you do not see/hear things from the other person’s perspective.

A strong first position perspective may be useful in certain contexts, yet in resolving conflict it is useful to experience and understand the situation from the other person’s point of view.

  • 2nd Position (Other) is where we dissociate from ourselves and our own experience, and step into someone else’s shoes. We image we are in someone else’s body, experiencing the world through their senses. We see things from their point of view. This may therefore be described as an ‘other’ position.

Assume the perceptual position of another person provides additional information. Successful communicators such as therapists, negotiators and good sales people are all highly effective in using second position, whether they are aware of it consciously or not. Good therapists do this to create empathy, build rapport and to increase awareness of how their client builds their map or reality.

When you successfully assume a second position it is as if you are seeing and hearing the world through the eyes and ears of another person.

If we are in conflict with someone else it can be extremely valuable to be able to experience the situation as they do.

  • 3rd Position (Observer) is where we’re an independent observer and can watch the interaction between positions 1 and 2. This is a ‘fly on the wall’ point of view that gives us information from an objective and detached perspective, free of the emotional content of positions 1 and 2. We see things from an outside point of view. Consequently this can be described as an ‘observer’ position.

Third position allows you to step back and take an observer role watching your own and another’s behaviours from a more objective viewpoint. It is as if you are outside of yourself watching and listening to yourself and anyone else in the scene. You might imagine seeing yourself on a stage or cinema screen to help create a clean observer position.

Third position is useful if when you want to back off from emotionally charged experiences to get an objective view. You may assume a third position perspective to reflect on your performance from the outside, so you can evaluate and give feedback to yourself.

Using Perceptual Positions

As an exercise you move between the different perceptual positions like this –

use perceptual positions to gather information and resolve conflict

Perceptual Positions Exercises

Here are a couple of suggestions for utilising the different perceptual positions –

Exercise 1: Advance Preparation

Say you have an important meeting coming up. Perhaps with an important client, or your boss. There may be something delicate or potentially volatile that you want to discuss with your partner or significant other.

To make sure it goes well you could rehearse different potentials using mental rehearsal and the power of imagination.

This is an exercise that allows you to plan and foresee any potential pitfalls, to be proactive in your approach, and ensure you are more likely to achieve your desired outcome –

First be clear in your mind what your desired outcome is, then:

1. Imagine yourself in 1st position. Imagine how the meeting might develop from your perspective. Refer to your outcome and rehearse what you intend to say and do.

2. Next imagine yourself as the other from the 2nd position perspective. Use everything you know about them to enable you to step into their shoes. Notice how you respond to what ‘you,’ the first person is saying and doing. Are you open to what they (1st position) are saying to you (2nd position)?

3. Now imaging you are an independent and uninvolved invisible observer, a fly on the wall if you will in 3rd position.

  • What do you notice?
  • Are the participants in rapport with each other?
  • Is 1st position moving closer or further away from the desired outcome?
  • How is each affecting the atmosphere of the meeting.
  • View your behaviour and then observe the effect it has on the other person – Is there any advice you might give yourself after viewing the meeting from this perspective? Could anything be improved or done better

4. Then, go back to 1st position and incorporate any of the potential changes that may have been obvious from the third person perspective. How does it seem now to you? Any better than before?

5. Now move to 2nd position once again. View the meeting from the other’s perspective.

  • How does it feel now some changes have been made?
  • Do you feel more, or less in rapport now?
  • Are you open to what 1st position is saying to you?

6. Finally you might like to move to the detachment of the 3rd position perspective once again. Since this position has no emotional content you can be more objective about the results achieved (or not achieved). If you still see room for improvement you could choose to go another round.

Exercise 2: Conflict Resolution

Conflict is a continual loop that fuels itself.

If you are in conflict with another person you are likely to provoke that conflict when you meet that person with your body language and voice tone. This is because you are stuck in your first position and therefore you have not resolved your perception of the conflict.

Most of my clients are surprised by how much extra information is available when using different perceptual positions: they learn about their themselves but also whoever it is they have chosen to cast in the second position role.

People who find themselves stuck in a repetitive cycle of conflict in a relationship are usually stuck in a first position perspective, or unaware of the possibilities that a second or third position perspective can offer.

Another aspect of dealing with conflict is making explicit the ‘intention’ of both parties. Intention usually operates at a higher level than the behaviours inherent in the conflict.

1. Distinguish 3 places on the floor, or perhaps choose 3 different chairs representing 1st, 2nd and 3rd positions. Observe the conflict and see and hear the two people in conflict.

2. Next step into 1st position. Experience what it is like from your own perspective. See and hear the other person. Be aware of your feelings. Also get a sense of your intention here, the bigger picture.

Step back and shake off your perspective completely.

3. Now step into 2nd position. Experience the conflict as they do. See and hear and feel the situation from their perspective.

  • What does he/she (referring to the first position representation of you) look and sound like from this perspective?
  • How does this feel experienced through the perceptions of the other?
  • What is the intention, the bigger picture here in 2nd position (intention of other)?

Step back and shake off the second position completely.

4. Step into 3rd position now and observe both people at the same time once again. Be clear about both parties’ intentions.

  • In third position you can now act as coach offering new behaviours that support the intention, but do not promote conflict.
  • You can offer new and better choices to the representation of you over there in first position.

5. Step back into 1st position once again and rehearse the new alternatives given in step 4.

  • Notice how your internal experience changes and how your representation of the other person changes.

6. Step into 2nd position and experience how the first position representation is now different.

7. Finally step back and check how you now feel about the conflict now.