The 3-Chair Method: Getting a New Perspective

Quick.  Stop for 2 seconds and try this:  draw an E on your forehead with your finger.

OK. I’ll give you a pass if you are in a crowded office or a coffee shop and don’t want to look silly.  But if not, take the index finger of your dominant hand and trace the outline of capital letter E on your forehead before reading further.

Now, think about your E.

Did you draw an E so that it faced you or faced the other direction, so that  someone else could read it?

In this well-known experiment, the way you draw the E reveals whether you are person who tends to take the perspective of others.  If you drew the E so that you can read it yourself (making it backwards for others, like in the picture on the left), you tend to not consider another’s point of view.  You might even be a little *gasp* arrogant.  Another study has shown that more powerful people have difficulty seeing from any perspective but their own.


So, what’s the big deal if you fail to take another’s perspective into account?

According to Francesca Gino, author of Sidetracked:  Why Our Decisions Get Derailed and How We Can Stick to the Plan, the failures of perspective taking are many:

1. We overestimate the extent to which others share our attitudes and feelings.

2. We believe that others have more access to our internal states than they actually do.

3. We tend to use ourselves as a standard when evaluating others.

4. We draw on our own experiences when evaluating others.

5.  We suffer from the “curse of knowledge” and have a hard time remembering that others do not have the same access to information and knowledge that we do.

Lack of perspective-taking leads to not realizing that miscommunication often is the result of misinterpretation, as I show below, graphically in my super-scientific “Mickey Mouse” Theory of Interpersonal Communication.

Mickey Mouse Theory of Interpersonal Communication

Note the tiny overlap of “shared interpretation.”

Lack of perspective-taking can create challenges both in your personal life (marriage, kids) and in your business life, especially in dealing with conflict.

So, how can you get better at perspective-taking?

Try the 3-chair method.

3 chairs

Play an imaginary game of perspective chairs and imagine sitting in each of 3 chairs of  perspective:

  1. Your own perspective
  2. The other party’s perspective
  3. An impartial observer’s perspective

Sitting in your own chair, or having your own perspective, is easy.

Sitting in the other party’s chair, or taking the other person’s perspective, is harder.  You don’t really know all that they know.  You don’t really know their inner state (maybe something happened prior to your meeting that has affected their emotional state).  You don’t know how their interpretation of your shared knowledge might differ.  So, the first step is realizing that you don’t know everything.  The second step is seeking to understand.  Let go of your assumptions, or bring them out into the open so they can be addressed.  Listen and ask questions.  Try to put yourself in their shoes (or chair, in this case).  One method for dealing with conflict that I have found extremely effective  is LEAP (Listen reflectively, Empathize, Agree and Partner).  Read more on LEAP.

Sitting in an impartial observer’s chair, or getting outside of the situation and taking the perspective of an impartial observer, is perhaps most difficult.  But, in doing so, you are more likely to get the get the big picture of a situation.  In the book, Decisive: How to Make Better Decisions in Life and Work, the authors, brothers Chip and Dan Heath, suggest “zooming out” to get an outside view before making a decision.  The same concept can be applied to thinking about interpersonal communication.  By zooming out, you take the view of how the situation appears to others.   You can even ask yourself what another person, a person whom you respect, would say or act in the situation.

An example . . .

Let’s take a simple example, one that happened to me yesterday.

Yesterday, some friends came over for me to video a promo for a website.  As I thought about how the background of the video would look, I thought that my apartment would be too “busy” a background, so I suggested we go to the “party room” of my apartment complex, which had some darker walls and upscale decor.  When we got to the party room, which was next to the apartment management office, one of the managers was talking to a prospective renter in the party room, so we waited until the manager said, “let me get this paperwork copied and then I’ll show you around.”  The manager left, and the prospective renter remained in the room.  I figured that she would be leaving soon, so my friends and I entered the room and went to the far end.  I set up my tripod and camera and did a couple of trial shoots until the manager came back, and talked with the prospective renter for a few more minutes, during which time my friends and I chatted quietly.  After the manager left, we did two more takes (only 30 seconds each), and for the second take, I asked one of my friends to close the door to the room, to cut down on outside noise.  As we finished up and I was showing the last take to one of my friends, a different apartment manager approached us, looking fairly upset.

“What are you doing?” she asked.

“Shooting a short video for a friend’s website,” I said.

“You can’t close the door and you can’t video without permission,” she said.  She added something like, “You have to get permission to use footage of this room.  Plus you have to pay for rental.  You will have to get [another manager’s] OK for the video.”

This was an opportunity to practice the “3 chairs method.”

My chair/perspective:  My initial thoughts were: What’s the big deal?  We were in the room for 5 minutes.  The door was closed for less than a minute. Really? I need permission to video a wall with a fake plant?  Pay rent for 5 minutes when I live here?

Her chair/perspective:  Now I don’t know exactly what her perspective was, but I could try to guess.  I noticed that she seemed really upset, more so than I would expect for what I considered to be a relatively small infraction. So, my first thought was that arguing with her might be a bad idea, if she was emotional.  Maybe there was something that happened right before this incident that caused her to be in a bad mood.  Maybe they were burned by someone videoing in the party room.  Maybe they were concerned about managing impressions of the apartment complex. Perhaps my entering the room before the prospective renter had left was bad manners.  Perhaps closing the door made them feel I was overstepping my bounds as a renter when I hadn’t paid for exclusive use of the room.

Impartial observer chair/perspective:  Management was upset.  Diane and friends were surprised by management being upset.  This might have been avoided if Diane and friends had waited until no one was in the room, or if Diane had asked permission (or if management had clearly defined and posted regulations).  Because this was likely a “small potatoes” issue in the long term, and in order to not damage the renter/landlord relationship, de-escalation of the conflict would be a wise course of action.

This is how I replied, given the quick game of “perspective chairs” I had just played in my head:

“I’m sorry. I didn’t know I needed permission.  We were here for just a few minutes and the door was only closed a very short time.  The only part of the room that was in the video was that wall and the plant.”

(I explained my position without being defensive, to try to get her to see a little of my perspective)

“Well, you do need to get permission,” she said.

“OK.  I’ll know that for next time.  I’m sorry I didn’t even think about it.”

And we parted on cordial terms.  How do you think the conversation would have gone if I had spoken solely from my perspective?

Take a moment before you react to a situation to “sit in another chair.”

“If there is any one secret of success,it lies in the ability to get the other person’s point of view and see things from that person’s angle as well as from your own.”- Henry Ford

This content is also featured in, The Respect Virus:  How to Create a Contagious Culture of Respect

The Respect Virus


About Diane Windingland
I speak for organizations that want their people to have better, more profitable conversations.

3 Responses to The 3-Chair Method: Getting a New Perspective

  1. Pingback: The Respect Virus: 7 Ways to Spread It at Work | Small Talk, Big Results

  2. hantu galah says:

    This website was… how do I say it? Relevant!! Finally I have found something that helped me.

  3. Pingback: The Respect Virus: 7 Ways to Spread It at Work | RECHARGE Personal Power

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