Tuesday 11 July 2023

Perceptual Positions: Two Chair Work

One of the ways in which we can help people (not least ourselves) to think more intelligently is to understand perceptual positions.

Typically, when I am thinking about something, I am thinking about it from my point of view. Obviously, you might say, and you'd be right. 

I always like C W Metcalf's way of highlighting this:  he draws a quick map of the Universe on a flipchart, explaining solemnly that it is expanding in all directions.  He then marks a point in the middle and explains it is the Center of the Universe (sic: he is American, after all). He then marks another point, and says: 'That's you - and when you confuse the two, you have lost the plot!'  Yet we can't help but see the world from our point of view, unless we make an explicit effort. 

And that's where perceptual position work comes in: that simple act of stepping into someone else's shoes and seeing what it looks like from there, as Atticus points out to Scout in To Kill A Mockingbird.

So when I am working with someone who is thinking about a difficult relationship or interaction with a colleague, I sometimes produce an extra chair, and ask my client what he would say to this colleague if he or she were sat in the chair, and if my client had no fear of it being taken the wrong way.  That is first position.

I then invite my client to move to the other chair, and to imagine that he or she is now the colleague. How would the colleague respond? That is second position, and my clients often - indeed, I would say normally - surprise themselves by what they hear themselves say about themselves from that second position. It often sheds a lot of light on the relationship or the issue under discussion, that was previously not available to the individual.

And then I invite him or her to stand above the two chairs, and look down at these two characters, and consider the conversation that has just taken place, and observe whatever is interesting about it from above and outside. That is third position; and again it often opens up new insights for the client about himself or herself, about the colleague, about the relationship and about the situation.

The bizarre thing is, on the face of it, that clients invariably have more insight available to them than previously recognised. It is also true, of course, that the client does not know how the colleague would really respond. Nevertheless, the imaginative exercise of stepping away from first position, frees up thinking, not least by leaving issues of ego, sensitivity, self-putdowns and fear to one side (temporarily) and clients often see clearly the way forward when they had previously been blocked in their thinking.

As the old wisdom has it: Before picking a fight with someone, walk a mile in his shoes; because then you are a mile away: and you have got his shoes!


With thanks to Jason Grant for sharing this photo on Unsplash

Photo by Jason Grant on Unsplash

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