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The Secret to Reading Minds with Perceptual Positions

Wouldn’t it be great if you could see the world from someone else’s point of view? Maybe that would help with conflict, influence, or negotiation. This is exactly what John Grinder and Judith DeLozier’s Perceptual Positions technique will give you.

Building emotional intelligence has become a significant talking point in recent years. Our challenge is to find powerful and simple tools to help ourselves to do this.

The Development of Perceptual Positions

John Grinder and Judith DeLozier offered just this in their 1987 book, Turtles all the Way Down. Their work started from an examination of how skilled negotiators think. What they observed was an ability to see a situation from multiple points of view, which they labelled Perceptual Positions.

Three Perceptual Positions

The Three Perceptual Positions

The Three Perceptual Positions

First Position

The first Perceptual Position is how “I” see the world, through my own eyes.

This is how you spend most of your life. It allows you to put your own point of view and assert your own needs and desires. It creates a set of biases too. This means we all tend to assume that how we see things is also the way others see them. Yet this is rarely true.

Second Position

In the second of our Perceptual Positions, we see the world through the other person’s eyes. This allows me to get some insight into how you think and feel about a situation. This radically different perspective will help you build empathy and understanding. It can help you realise that, no matter how unreasonable, disruptive or even strange someone’s behaviour may seem to you; to them it makes perfect sense.

Third Position

The third Perceptual Position likewise offers a powerful perspective. Here, you can see the interaction from a fly-on-the-wall point of view. It is an objective, non-judgemental perspective that helps you to evaluate what is going on and create options for how you can proceed. It offers you a resourceful view of how you and the other person are acting.

The Costs of Each of the Perceptual Positions

Whilst each of these positions is of value, there are also costs to over-using them. Too much time spent in first position leads to a solipsistic view of the world where your needs override everyone else’s. Over-focus on second position leads to putting your legitimate needs and desires behind those of others. As a result, you may find yourself inappropriately passive. Finally, if you get locked into the third position, you come across as detached, unemotional, cold.

Of course, we inhabit all of these positions naturally. However, by cultivating your ability to shift between them consciously, you can create a more reliable insight into how people operate, giving greater control of your behaviour and hence outcomes.

The Roots of the Perceptual Positions

This was not new, even in 1987. DeLozier and Grinder drew on the work of a range of thinkers in the NLP (Neuro Linguistic Programming) tradition who, in turn, drew on earlier thinking from therapeutic disciplines such as Gestalt. Indeed, the roots of this approach may go back into the mists of time, with the use of storytelling and sayings like the traditional Cheyenne injunction: “Do not judge your neighbour until you have walked two moons in his moccasins.”

Their work gives us a structured way to apply this principle. By considering your interactions from each perspective, you can find solutions to a range of interpersonal challenges. These include things like ineffective communication, motivation, or dealing with conflict. This often works best, as gestalt counsellors have found, when participants physically adopt different positions to accompany the three perspectives.

About the Author Mike Clayton

Dr Mike Clayton is one of the most successful and in-demand project management trainers in the UK. He is author of 13 best-selling books, including four about project management. He is also a prolific blogger and contributor to ProjectManager.com and Project, the journal of the Association for Project Management. Between 1990 and 2002, Mike was a successful project manager, leading large project teams and delivering complex projects. In 2016, Mike launched OnlinePMCourses.

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