I play Sudoku, a Japanese numbers game with nine blocks of nine squares, where you fill in the numbers one through nine with a different number in each row, column, and block.
In playing the hardest puzzles, there typically comes a point where there does not seem to be an obvious number to be filled in. I reach impasse with the puzzle. Time being what it is, I set the puzzle down and go on with my day. Almost invariably, when I pick it back up, there is a relatively obvious number to be filled in that I cannot believe I missed and that allows me to complete the puzzle.
What’s happening? Why does the solution appear so easily now, and not earlier?
There are many strategies to use when solving a puzzle. Following any one will only go so far – but switching strategies can be hard. When I return to the puzzle I look at it anew. My perspective has changed, and I see openings that I did not see before.
Taking a new perspective can work in mediation as well.
Perspective taking is the cognitive capacity to consider the viewpoint of another. It is an innate ability – not simply empathy – that nearly everyone develops as a child. But just because perspective taking is an available skill does not mean that parties or attorneys involved in mediation use it.
Studies have found that perspective taking increases individuals’ ability to discover interests, create value, and beneficially impact negotiation in an integrative circumstance.1 The same studies suggest that perspective taking does not similarly help in a distributive negotiation – although, I have found that it can, nonetheless, be helpful for both parties and attorneys.
Focusing on imagining the perspective of the other party is more effective than focusing on empathy in reaching agreement.2 Indeed, perspective taking may even allow negotiation in low- or no-trust environments where empathy may be impossible.3
Barriers to Perspective Taking
There are three primary barriers to the effective use of perspective taking.4
First, activating the system. Perspective taking is purposeful activity, it does not just happen.
Second, getting past our egocentric view of the world. The easiest perspective to assume that another person has is your own and that is generally what happens. Predictably, the adjustment from that default perspective is insufficient for effective perspective taking.
Finally, perspective taking requires the use of accurate information about the other person. This can be the largest impediment because of the human tendency to be overly cynical about another’s intentions and motivations. This is especially true in mediation, where the parties may not trust each other. Without debiasing, perspective taking can cause a focus on the differences between the parties, which is not helpful.
Perspective Taking in Mediation
In my experience, the best approach is a direct one when suggesting perspective taking. I explain how it can be helpful and the barriers that can make it difficult to do effectively. I often give it as an assignment while I leave to speak with the opposing party. That gives the party the time and space necessary.
As a de-biasing technique, I sometimes suggest that the mere fortuity of which party walked in the door of which attorney can explain the good intentions of one side, versus the obvious improper motivations of the other. The fundamental attribution error is always worth discussing in this context.
I have occasionally suggested that a party place themselves in the perspective of a juror, and imagine how they might react to a stranger making the same demands that they are making. This difficult exercise can sometimes temper overconfidence.
Perspective taking can be a valuable tool in assisting the parties to resolution. It is worth considering whenever impasse seems imminent and the only thing that might get done is that Sudoku puzzle you started beforehand. See you at mediation.
1Trotschel, R., D.D. Loschelder, J. Huffmeier, K. Schwartz, and P.M. Gollwitzer. “Perspective Taking as a Means to Overcome Motivational Barriers in Negotiations: When Putting Oneself Into the Opponent’s Shoes Helps to Walk Toward Agreements.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 101(4): 771-790, 2011.
2Galinsky, A.D., W.W. Maddux, D. Gilin, and J.B. White. “Why It Pays to Get Inside the Head of Your Opponent: The Differential Effects of Perspective Taking and Empathy in Negotiations.” Psychological Science 19(4): 378-384, 2008.
3Cristal, M. “Negotiating in a Low-to-No Trust Environment.” The Negotiator’s Desk Reference 1, pp. 231-248, edited by C. Honeyman & A.K. Schneider, 2017.
4Epley, N. and E.M. Caruso. “Perspective Taking: Misstepping Into Others’ Shoes.” Handbook of Imagination and Mental Simulation, pp. 297-311, edited by Markman, K.D. and J.A. Suhr, 2008.