Perceptual Positions – “All Flexed up with No Place to Go”

This article is excerpted from a workshop on 2001 called “Advanced Negotiation for Thinking People.”

We naturally experience life via our own perception, vis-à-vis our senses. Like Association-dissociation, this can be both vital to our fulfillment or limiting, depending upon the situation. When associated, experiencing life directly, we naturally experience things in a more direct, primal fashion. However, getting “stuck” in that perception can be challenging in other circumstances, situations where “seeing things from a different angle” could be useful. The flexibility to do this has been the subject of prior sessions. Though once we have that flexibility and can shift our perception, what options do we have? Have we gained so much flexibility, albeit while lacking the knowledge of our options, such that we are “all flexed up with no place to go?”

Let’s look at the three perceptual positions we recognize in NLP, so that once we develop that flexibility, we have options.

The First Position is our own point of view, the one we use naturally with no flexibility required. Your own Map of the World shapes this perception, and here, our own feelings, personal beliefs, values, and opinions are vitally important to us. We can easily observe the behavior of others and assess how it pertains to you, an individual. Within your own mind, “your dreams and personal desires” are manifested. This is also where your notion of identity is maintained.

The Second Position is where we begin to consider another person’s perspective. This allows for us to realize that others have their own Map of the World, their own beliefs, values, ideas and feelings. From this position, you can consider how others may think about you. This is also the locus of empathy, as this position allows for “walking in another’s shoes,” “seeing through another’s eyes,” and really understanding, as best we ever could, another person’s experience.

The Third Position is an entirely dissociated point of view, detached from our own perspective. When we remove ourselves from our own feelings, as well as the feelings of the second person. This affords us a broader perspective of a situation, often called “the big picture”. This also enables us to more accurately comprehend interrelationships and their dynamics. This position is unique because unlike in the first and second, this affords clear awareness that each person involved has their own individual Maps of the World. This position exquisitely illustrates that in any situation with more than one person, there is more than one point of view.

For this, I enlisted a volunteer to demonstrate. I chose him because of his answers in a prior exercise—he was outgoing and flirtatious, eager to have new experiences and not become attached to one partner. I directed Kenny to “the Perceiver’s Chair,” at the front of the room. He sat about twenty feet from the front row of seated attendees, as I asked him to “Consider the answer to this question, without answering it audibly, please: What is the best way to begin a relationship? Just think about it Kenny. Apply your past experiences to this, your attitudes, years of being in good relationships, of having had your heart broken, perhaps of having broken a heart. Your experience alone matters in this situation. Okay? Good. That is your First Position perspective and its resulting answer.

“Next, I want you to look at Anita, the lovely woman in the front row, here.” I gestured to Anita, who had, in a prior exercise, shared that she was tentative in new relationships and often appeared aloof to new potential partners because of her admitted shyness and outright fear. “Look at Anita, and consider what you know of her. How does she view relationships? How does she feel at the onset of a potential new intrigue? Put yourself in her shoes, based on what you know of her, Kenny. Be respectful—her views, her Map of the World, are just as valid as your own. She’s just different from you. I see a shift in your physiology. Nod if you are noticing a difference in your perception as you consider that same question from her perspective.”

He nodded.

“Great, Kenny, thank you. Now, this may not be quite as easy…but how does she likely see you, based on what she likely knows about your own views about relationships? You have some idea of how she would answer that question, how she would feel is the best way to begin a new relationship. Yes. So how do you think she views you and your own answer to that question. And you do have an idea how, from her perspective, she believes you feel about that question—based on her own understanding of your perspective.”

Anita flushed, shaking her head.

“Go ahead, Kenny, nod once you have an idea of that.”

He did.

“Okay, one more thing…we only have about thirty people in here, so you can see to the back of the room. Linda has shared nothing of her own attitude towards relationships. We know nothing about her Map of the World so we don’t know where she stands on that question, do we? But here’s where this gets interesting. She has a different perspective than that of either of you. I want you to observe her, look at where she is in the room. Imagine what she sees, what she understands of this exercise. What she sees you and Anita doing and the question you’ve been considering—both from your position as well as the Second Position, Anita’s. Relax into this question and answer whatever comes to mind…What does Linda see, as the only one of you three who can see the Big Picture? What advice might she have based upon that unique perspective she holds? Does she likely realize that you are two different people with different backgrounds, histories, different Maps of the World? Or does she likely think you are pretty much the same and there’s no need to study the distinctions between you in order to better understand your potential interpersonal dynamics? And here’s the real eye-opener: Who between the three of you would be best suited to determine how you and Anita might speak and become acquainted?”

I turned to the group. “As he considers that, note his physiological shifts. Now you consider the question—who among them can best see the Big Picture, and best understand how the two of them could talk and get along?”

Kenny answered, “Definitely Linda. I’m going to try to imagine what Anita is thinking and how she sees me. But I’m filtering that through my own ego, my bias. My—what did you call it?—Map of the World? Anita is, I’m guessing, in the same boat. She’s got her own feelings, her own Map of the World, but she is seeing me through all that bias of her own. No offense! But Linda is just watching the two of us with no personal stake in it. I think it’s her.”

“Anyone disagree? No? Generally, that’s what you’ll find. Extrapolate this onto the World stage with nations facing off and negotiating, and each gets caught up in their own stories. The bystander, the neutral third party, isn’t necessarily devoid of any stories of their own, but they have no direct involvement, so any bias, which can happen, is not personal to them and direct. They are the most likely to see that Big Picture. However, it wasn’t a competition. The strength of shifting perceptual positions isn’t so much in choosing “the right one”, but rather as we’ve developed the behavioral flexibility to shift among them, to understand the character, the look and feel of each. Next time you find yourself in a difficult situation and it appears likely to escalate, remember your flexibility and shift positions. I promise that you will learn something new as you are assessing the dynamics with greater flexibility and broader perspective. Power, at its root, comes from such flexibility.”

I thanked all of them for their help and said, “Now that we know what the three positions are, I want you to break into groups of three and repeat what we just did. Take turns in each position and document your results in your notes. We’ll review your outcomes and answer questions in twenty minutes. Go!”

The point of this technique and one of its primary applications is to afford us greater awareness of the other perspectives involved in a given situation. From a negotiation standpoint, the benefits should be clear, though it also helps illuminate the underlying challenges in personal relationships. As you develop this flexibility and begin exploring these other perspectives, you will find a great deal more understanding and potential influence over your world.

Copyright © 2012 Chris Gingolph

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