by Steve and Connirae Andreas
Over 200 years ago, Robert Burns wrote the following (in modern English):
Oh, would some power the gift to give us,
To see ourselves as others see us!
It would from many a blunder free us,
And foolish notion.
The ability to experience ourselves as someone else does is an essential part of any good relationship. Without some understanding of how others experience events differently than we do, the responses of others would be forever a puzzle to us, as it is to an autistic person. The basic idea of the importance of learning how to “walk in someone else’s shoes” is a very old one, and has been widely recognized in the field of psychology, as well as by many spiritual traditions.
However, few people are very good at this ability, because it is a skill that is seldom taught in explicit detail. Fortunately, it is possible to help clients learn this key relationship ability through a simple exercise which can then become a homework assignment. Though simple to understand, and easy to do, it often has profound and far-reaching effects. Clients are often surprised that they become naturally able to understand others’ point of view better, their relationships improve, and they feel more resourceful in dealing with family, friends, and co-workers.
The homework assignment involves teaching the client three fundamental perceptual positions. Each offers a unique kind of wisdom, and together they provide a surprisingly complete range of information for finding our own solutions to the inevitable conflicts and challenges that occur as we relate with others.
The Three Perceptual Positions
1. Self Position. When I think of an interaction with another person, I experience it from my own point of view, looking out of my eyes, and seeing the other person. This is the position that most of us assume that we are in all the time.
When I use this position, I am in touch with my own needs, and can pursue my own interests and goals.
If I only use self position, I am like a small child, egocentric and selfish, and others’ needs and desires mean nothing to me.
2. Observer Position. I can observe the same interaction between myself and someone else from the outside, as if I were an observer watching two strangers on a TV set. From this position, I can dispassionately observe the interaction between us—the sequence of words, gestures, and expressions that occur in the communication. When I use this position, I am able to see my own behavior more clearly, as if I were watching someone else, and also see how each of us is responding to the other—free of evaluation and judgement.
If I only use observer position, I become detached and distant, and life becomes meaningless, like a character in an existentialist novel.
3. Other Position. I experience the interaction between us from the perspective of the other person. I become them and experience what it is like to be this person in this situation, looking out at me. When I do this well, I take on the other person’s beliefs, attitudes, values, knowledge, and personal history to the best of my knowledge and ability.
When I use this position, I am able to gain a deep, rich, and detailed experiential understanding of what someone else is experiencing.
If I only use other position, I live for someone else rather than for myself, a life of self–sacrifice in which others’ needs and desires always take precedence over my own.
Each of these positions has unique advantages and limitations. The ability to fully utilize all three gives us all the advantages and leaves the limitations behind. Like many skills, at first this may be a mostly conscious process, but with practice it becomes predominantly unconscious and natural. Here are some examples of how this exercise has helped people spontaneously become more resourceful:
One woman (5) wanted to pleasure her husband during lovemaking, but had been disgusted by one aspect of it that her husband liked. When she took his position, and discovered how much he enjoyed it, she said, “Wow, I didn’t know he liked it this much!” When she moved to observer position, she saw herself being kind to her husband, giving him an experience that was very special to him. When she returned to self position, all the disgust was gone, replaced with happiness at being able to please him so much.
One man, while exploring a difficult quarrel with his wife, discovered how she felt shocked and attacked by some of the things that he had said, when from his own perspective he had seen it as simply fully expressing his frustration and confusion. This led him to take a much more gentle and compassionate approach in talking with her. And when he told her what he had experienced as her, she was moved to tears that he finally understood how she felt.
Perceptual Positions Exercise
These directions are designed to provide an example of a general path; different people will need more instruction on different aspects, have different questions or concerns requiring explanation, etc. After at least one, and preferably two or three guided experiences of the process, the client is asked to find a quiet place and do the same process daily with one or two incidents from each day.
1. Choose Event : Fred, I want you to think of a minor difficulty that you have had with your wife, Ann. When first learning this method, it is very important to use a small difficulty. Later, when you are more experienced and fluent with the steps of the process, it will be much easier and more useful to process major issues.
2. Self position: Relive this experience from your own point of view. You are seeing out of your own eyes, hearing with your own ears, and having the feelings you had in response to those events.
3. Observer position: Now I want you to allow yourself to move out to the side to a comfortable position from which you can see yourself and Ann equally well (or allow the scene to move around until you are in a comfortable position to observe the two of you).
From this position, run the exact same videotape that you just saw, but from this new perspective, seeing and hearing all those events again, this time simply with an attitude of curiosity about what you can learn about this interaction between Fred and Ann over there.
If you have any feelings other than curiosity or a gentle compassion for them, those feelings probably belong to either Fred or Ann, and you can let those feelings move over there to where they belong.
Now take a little while to allow your whole being to memorize what this observer position is like, so that it will be easy to return to it in the future whenever you might find it useful.
4. Other position : Now look over at Ann and notice how her way of being in the world is expressed nonverbally in her voice tone, her tempo, her postures, movements, and gestures, etc. Temporarily leaving behind your own beliefs, values and assumptions, gently move toward her and step into her, so that you can experience this situation as she does.
As Ann, run that same video of that event, as you discover what it is like to be her in this interaction. Take some time to do this, again with a sense of curiosity about what you can learn from this. You may want to repeat the video once or twice to be sure that you experience it all thoroughly from this perspective…
5. Observer position : Now return to observer position. Keeping all the learnings of the Other position, you can completely let go of that position, and again run the video, noticing any changes in how you experience these events from this observer position after experiencing Ann’s perspective.
6. Self position : Now return to your own self position, and again run the video, noticing any changes in how you experience these events from this position after experiencing Ann’s perspective and Observer position
A person can continue to move from one position to another as long as it continues to provide useful information. Usually we end in self position, since this is the way we can most resourcefully live most of our lives. (However, if an experience is very intense, the client may feel more comfortable and resourceful ending in Observer position.)
Using this process on a situation always clarifies it, sometimes profoundly. The learnings that are made in each position carry over and enrich the others. Usually this exercise results in the client:
- Becoming clearer about wants, needs, and goals.
- Feeling more personally resourceful.
- Becoming more intuitively accurate about others’ experiencing.
- Being more compassionate toward others.
- Having more access to creative solutions.
- Experiencing greater wisdom in relationships.
Like any other skill, learning how to enter each position and experience it, and learning how to spontaneously shift quickly and easily from one position to another, improves with practice. Using this process as homework hones the skill, at the same time that it clarifies and enriches situations that have been difficult and troublesome. These new learnings are felt understandings, not mental ones, and they carry over into the daily interactions with the other person, changing how the other person is perceived, understood, and responded to.
Once the client has learned the basic exercise presented above, the benefits can be dramatically increased through additional exercises in which each position becomes carefully aligned. Everyone that we have worked with so far has had misalignments, in which some aspects of the positions are out of place. For instance, a feeling belonging to the other person may be located in Self position, a Self voice may be located in Observer position, or the eyes in Self position may be looking from a point three inches to the left of the actual eyes, etc. These misalignments prevent us from gaining everything we can from the positions. Learning to align the positions increases the purity of our access to each position, and the resulting benefits.
Ideally, the observer position is at the same eye level as the two people in the interaction. If the observer eye level is higher, it is likely that the observations will become criticisms. Moving the position down to eye level will change criticism to neutral observation. This simple move, when practiced over time, has helped people become less judgmental.
If the observer is not equidistant from the two people being observed, there is usually a tendency to take the side of the person who is closer. Moving the observer position to be the same distance from the two people will eliminate this bias.
One client had been tested and diagnosed as biologically depressed and needing antidepressants. Through aligning his relationship with his mother, he discovered that “his” voice was actually his mother’s voice stuck in his throat. After allowing his mother’s voice to return to her, making room for his own voice, his depression spontaneously cleared up over the next two weeks.
Andreas, C. and Andreas, T (1991) Aligning Perceptual Positions: a new distinction in NLP. ( Free Online Article) Salt Lake City UT: Anchor Point, February, pp. 1-6
Andreas, C. (1991) Aligning Perceptual Positions (DVD demonstration of the complete process) Lakewood, CO: NLP Comprehensive
Andreas, C. (1992) The Aligned Self (audio-CD set) Lakewood, CO: NLP Comprehensive
Andreas, Tamara. (2007) Core Transformation—the Full 3-Day Workshop (DVD training, Includes a complete training in aligning perceptual positions.) Real People Press.
Pearson, J, (1997) “Aligning Perceptual Positions in Sex Therapy.” Salt Lake City, UT: Anchor Point, January, pp. 13-18
Andreas, C. and Andreas, T. Coming Home to Yourself: aligning your inner world. Forthcoming book from Real People Press). *To be published in Favorite Counseling and Therapy Homework Assignments: 56 Therapists Share Their Most Creative Strategies. Howard Rosenthal, Ed. Accelerated Development/Taylor and Francis, Philadelphia, PA.
©2000 by Steve Andreas—used with permission
* To be published in Favorite Counseling and Therapy Homework Assignments: 56 Therapists Share Their Most Creative Strategies. Howard Rosenthal, Ed. Accelerated Development/Taylor and Francis, Philadelphia, PA.
The basic perceptual positions exercise comes from the field of NLP. The alignment criteria and exercises were developed by Connirae Andreas, and is available in a complete DVD training taught by Tamara Andreas as part of the Core Transformation 3-Day Workshop on DVD.