Gifts: A Lesson in Perspective Taking

My mother was the best gift giver on the planet. By that, I mean, she had an uncanny way of figuring out just what the person wanted as a gift. I always think of her at this time of year as I am racking my brain to choose “just the right gift” for those people in my life that I care about. Year after year, she would come up with the perfect choice for each person in the family. It was amazing, even baffling.

For awhile, I thought it had something to do with her being a witch! A witch? A Biible-teaching Sunday School teacher at the local Baptist church? She was a godly woman, in the complete Southern sense of the word, but she told me when I was a child that she was a witch. I later figured out her strategy which was to convince me of her supernatural powers, just enough to lodge the thought in my mind that she could see me at all times, in all places, to perhaps dissuade me from doing something that might get me in trouble. It’s the old trick of making kids think that Santa is watching you and making a list of who has been naughty and nice, as a cheap method of behavior modification. That gets extended cosmically with the notion that God is watching, got an EYE on you specifically. Later, some folks carry that over to a sense of being watched by the government or other threatening entity. I’ll leave that alone, but for me, it was the mere suggestion that my mom was a witch, which was enough, to keep me on the straight and narrow.

That strategy worked on me for awhile until I learned from my therapist that what my mother was doing was introjecting herself into my unconscious so that her voice would always be in my head, whether I was at a social gathering, driving alone on a highway, or at the Clermont Lounge. She was there with me, inextricably in my head. Psychoanalytic theory tells us that is the super ego, and it cost me several thousand dollars to get clear about all that and gain some freedom from its tyranny.

It would have been cheaper if I had just asked her. And I did the day after Christmas one year. “How do you always choose the perfect gift?”. True to form, she replied, “I am a witch!”. I  quickly explained to her my knowledge of psychoanalysis, showing her the receipt from my shrink, and that her ruse was up. She smiled that way she would when she was putting up with my pretense to know more than I did and said, “It’s all about perspective taking”. Okay, I’ll bite. What does that mean?

She explained that perspective taking is the talent of getting in the mind of the other person. The motivation is to understand the world of the other person. It’s as traditional as the old Native American wisdom of walking a mile in the other person’s moccasins.  It’s the gift of seeing the world through another person’s eyes. It is taking the other’s perspective, that is, their way of viewing the world. My mother, who had probably learned from her own mother, had the gift of perspective taking and she righteously applied it to selecting gifts for others.

I learned later in my academic study that there is, in fact, a cognitive skill that can be developed, and even measured, as you consider other people’s view of the world, transcending the limitations of your limited point of view, or perspective. By really focusing on the wants, needs, and interests of the other, one is given a clue as to what make him/her “tick”, why they do what they do, why they think the way they do. Perspective taking. No witchy trick, but it does border on magic.

The sophisticated way of describing this skill, or power, is called empathy, that is, feeling what an other person feels. It means considering the full reality of the other person, and simultaneously suspending, momentarily, the tendency to impose my own way of seeing the world on the other person. Projecting “my view” or my emotions onto the “other” is one of the most prevalent “misses” that occur in the messiness of human relationships.

In business, perspective taking has found its own place. There has emerged a whole discipline called Emotional Intelligence, pioneered by Dr. Daniel Goleman, who has experimented and documented the human ability to treat other people with respect and value. In the workplace, it means that you treat your coworker in ways by which they feel understood and taken seriously. This is particularly true in supervisory relationships where power issues impinge and seek to impose a hierarchy of values on the worth and value of people. Emotional intelligence means that you have “people smarts” in that you treat the other people in the situation with care. Emotional intelligence gives you the important self awareness that you are just one person in the community of others. There are words used to describe those folks, such as caring, thoughtful, respectful. And as I have learned in coaching leaders, there is one particular, distinctive word in the English language that describes those folks who are lacking in the skill of perspective taking……and I will let you fill that word in. I am exercising my emotional intelligence!. Or maybe it’s my mom’s witchy way, unexorcised in my head.

Think of those people in your life, your work environment, or social setting that seem gifted in this human skill of emotional intelligence, or as it’s come to be called in short-hand, EQ. Now, think of those people who are disrespectful, people that act without regard for you or others. And now, the bonus question: how do people think of you? A person who is gifted in perspective taking of others, or one who is stuck in a limiting perspective of self? Your EQ makes all the difference. Business has learned the this has a huge effect on the bottom line.

I have worked with numerous executives who have left a wake of bloodied relationships and broken teams due to a severe lack of emotional intelligence. As I coach them, I sometimes wonder if their mother didn’t teach them these skills. Did they just forget, a bad case of social amnesia? The good news is that one can develop emotional intelligence, and one can increase one’s ability to take the perspective of others. I’ve seen it happen…even without going through the magical incantations of becoming a witch. It’s called perspective taking.

I find Christmas to be a good exercise in perspective taking. Thinking about what might be the “perfect gift” for those you care about is a good way to exercise your empathetic muscle. What to get my island-girl daughter? What would bring a smile to my Nashville musician son? What about my entrepreneurial brother or my fabulous sister-in-law? What would make their Christmas a little more merry? The act of imagining is a gift in and of itself as it gets you out of your own self, to exercise perspective taking.

Now, what might my wife, Mary, want? What would make her happy, or a Merry Mary? Let’s see…..a Fender Stratocaster guitar or a new set of Titleist golf clubs?

One thought on “Gifts: A Lesson in Perspective Taking

  1. But how do I get out of Trump’s head once I have understood his reality? A headmaster once told me the key to addressing conflict is to start with the other person’s reality because it is real to them. They are not pretending. So, I have successfully empathised with his pathological narcissism and it all makes sense.

    Fred Smith
    The Gathering
    6125 Paluxy Drive
    Tyler, Texas 75703


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