The other morning on the way to a mediation, I heard some early morning radio chit-chat. The male and female presenters were discussing taxi drivers in Sydney. They mentioned a news story of the previous weekend.
In the early hours of Sunday morning, a taxi driver had pulled over to a group of people not far from centre of the city. He wound down the back window of the cab about 10 centimetres, and asked the group where they were going. When they said the suburb, the taxi driver started to drive off. Unfortunately, one of the men had poked his arm through the window of the cab. The man’s arm was caught in the window as the taxi driver proceeded to drive off.
The man and his friends yelled and screamed, “Stop! Stop!” The taxi driver kept driving with the man’s arm stuck in the window. The man and his friends didn’t know what to do. Fearing that he may be seriously injured, his friend made a split second decision to throw a brick he found nearby through the back window of the taxi. Throwing the brick had the desired result. The taxi driver stopped and the man’s arm was released from the window.
Out of Character
That morning I conducted an individual session arranged prior to mediation. One of the issues of the conflict was that one of the parties was not willing to accept or even consider that some people’s behaviour may differ or be out of character in certain circumstances.
For instance, it may be out of character for someone to yell and scream or to hold someone’s hand down, or to push them, or to close a door. Sometimes a number of events leading up to an event contribute to someone behaving in a way that is unusual or out of character.
In this particular case, a quiet, “hands off” manager (who was said to be “too lenient”, “not strong enough” and “had let things go too far”) had raised her voice, and touched a member of staff on the arm. This behaviour was seen by her manager and the rest of the team to be out of character. The female manager said she had finally had enough of trying to endlessly explain everything to one of her team. The team member was reported to have been consistently dissatisfied unless they had their way. The member of staff felt assaulted by the manager. She made a formal complaint about the incident.
I recalled the story of the taxi driver. My aim was to challenge the parties’ uni-directional view of the situation. Generally speaking, people may say that the man who threw the brick through the taxi window was culpable and had done a dangerous act, and some may even say he “should be punished.” However, given the circumstances, with the man’s friend at risk of serious harm, throwing a brick through the taxi window may not be seen as culpable. Many would agree that he acted to save his mate. That this was a split second decision in response to his perception of danger.
Similarly, in the workplace conflict I was mediating that day, the manager had made a split second decision to raise her voice, and touch her staff member’s hand in response to what she interpreted as danger or attack. While it may be agreed by many people that any form of touch is not welcome in the workplace, many people may also have been in a situation where they felt pushed too far by another person. When this occurs – many people respond naturally with a raised voice, some may even signal with their hand / s, or may touch someone, as they move out of the room. Some people may describe such situations as “their blood was boiling”. Others may describe it as an amygdala hijack (or the brains’ fight or flight response kicking in). In many of these situations people later regret such behaviours.
The Big Picture
When people are angry, they can sometimes forget to, or fail to, look at more than just the basic circumstances of the situation. They often just look at the behaviour itself, and not what was behind it, not the intentions, nor what could have actually led to the other persons’ behaviour, or caused the behaviour in the first place. Often much more than just the few minutes leading up to the response impacts behaviour. In many circumstances, there has been a history leading up to events, and the last interaction is just the “straw that broke the camel’s back.”
In these cases it is the mediator’s role to help people to see the situation from different view points, even see the big picture, or more specifically, that other peoples’ actions, or inactions, can sometimes be the result of causes they have not considered or taken into account.
As a mediator or coach, it is our job to help others perspective-take. In some cases the best we can do is to encourage and train them to listen. In the best case scenario we may even be able to assist them to empathise.
Five Strategies to Encourage Perspective-Taking
We can use a number of the strategies to encourage perspective-taking, some of these include:
- Telling stories, such as the one about the taxi driver. Stories where a character in the story felt pushed to a point, or forced to act in a way that was out of character, where they felt they had no option but to respond in the way they did. Stories can help shift people from uni-directional thinking.
- Encouraging people to look at their behaviour in the situation, or in another situation, where they acted in a way that was out of character, and a situation occurred that they didn’t necessarily want to happen.
- Drawing attention to situations where two people’s views or values may be the same, however the two people’s mode of execution to achieve their goals are very different. For instance, you may be committed to an organisation, or job or role, and you just have a different way of demonstrating your commitment. Or, you’re both committed to an organisation, and your KPIs are in opposition, and this leads to conflict. So despite your best efforts to do the best you can, the company has unintentionally set you up for conflict.
- Expressing a worldview to clients that most people do not wake up in the morning intending to harm others (even though sometimes they inadvertently do). This can help people to relax and reassure them that the individuals involved did not necessarily set out to harm them. (Of course this would only be done where this was the case, and the actions were not intended in the way the person has perceived). When we alleviate the fear that the actions were intentional, we reduce the person’s defensiveness, and they are more likely to be able to get on with the job of solving the problem/s, rather than focusing on the other person’s culpability.
- Perspective-taking can be increased cognitively through drawing people’s attention to similar situations in their own lives where they may have felt similar emotions. So even if the person cannot understand the other person’s particular issues with the situation or their associated feelings, they may be able to understand the emotions that are felt and expressed. For example, if a person has never owned a pet goldfish, they may not understand how another person is absolutely devastated that Bertie, the pet goldfish has died. However, you may draw their attention to the fact that they were devastated when the family dog, Daniel, passed away two years earlier, and the feelings that the whole family felt in response.
Some degree of perspective-taking is essential to resolving problems, conflict resolution, and to effective decision-making. What are some of the strategies you use to encourage your own and others’ perspective-taking?
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