Perceptual Positions And How To Use Them

Perceptual positions graphic

This is the first in a series of articles about dealing with ‘difficult’ people.

First, we’re going to get some perspectives on a very useful NLP model known as ‘Perceptual Positions’. The idea behind this is that if you look at something from a number of different viewpoints, you can gain extra information which gives you a basis for making wise choices.

This is most useful in helping to improve relationships, especially in helping yourself and others to deal with those ‘difficult’ people (you know the ones I mean). Or those times when your loved ones – even though you love them – can do or say something that really gets to you, or that you find hard to deal with.

Focusing on that difficult person for a moment, and remembering that everyone has a different ‘map of the world’, and that no-one has a monopoly of the truth – who would they say is the ‘difficult’ one in that relationship?

Here’s the important thing about ‘difficult’ people: you can’t change them. But that’s OK, because it’s not them you have a problem with.

Because we don’t experience reality directly, and we filter our perceptions before we even become aware of them, you can never fully know another person – even the people you’re closest to, let alone the ones we dislike and avoid as much as we can. So what you’re having a problem with is not the difficult person themselves, it’s your internal representation of them. And when you change that, you change your responses.

Perceptual positions is a way of gaining new information about a relationship, making useful changes in your internal representation of the other person so you can deal with them more resourcefully, and gaining some additional self-awareness at the same time. Here’s how it works.

Three Perceptual Positions

You can look at any interaction with another person from three different viewpoints:

1. Your own viewpoint (known in NLP as ‘first position’). This is a good position to be in for being in touch with your feelings and standing up for your own interests. Some people never grow beyond it.

2. The other person’s viewpoint (‘second position’). If you put yourself in the other person’s shoes, you are more likely to understand how they see you and what their feelings and motivations are. This is extra information that you can’t get if you stay stuck in your own viewpoint (of course, this ‘mind reading’ can only ever be speculation – you can’t know for sure what another person is thinking, although people often behave as if they can).

3. A detached observer’s viewpoint (‘third position’). This is good for detaching yourself from the emotions of a situation and gaining a dispassionate overview. From this position you can observe the interactions between yourself and others as a whole system. You can see how you respond when they do something, and vice versa.

Disadvantages of being stuck in one position

Sometimes people habitually experience things from one position and miss out on the other information available.

If you always see things from your own point of view, you may appear selfish to others, and you won’t understand how other people feel, or anticipate the consequences of your actions.

If someone sees things only from the other person’s point of view, they become a ‘doormat’ because they put everyone else first and neglect your own feelings and interests. Other people will treat you accordingly.

Just take a moment to think – in the traditional nuclear family, who has – historically at least – most been in danger of falling into this trap? At mealtimes, who puts everyone else’s food on the table and is still doing stuff in the kitchen when everyone else is sitting down to eat?

And ‘third position’ – taking a detached overview. In the traditional ‘command and control’ workplace this is what managers are supposed to do: keep emotions out of decision-making and not let their feelings, or concern for others’s feelings, intrude on the business of running things rationally. But if the manager always takes a detached overview, they will not be in touch with their own feelings and will have no understanding of others. They will appear ‘cold’ and lacking in humanity to other people. Research in the field of emotional intelligence suggests that managers with greater self-awareness (which comes from the first position perspective) and greater empathy (which comes from second position) actually get better results – and this advantage increases the higher up the corporate ladder you go.

So wisdom comes from having the flexibility to move through the different positions, to see a situation from all sides before coming back to yourself to decide what you want.

Try This Perceptual Positions Exercise

Here’s an exercise you can try to experience the power of Perceptual Positions. You can try it by yourself, or even better, if you have a fellow explorer of NLP, have them read out the instructions to you:

  1. Think of a person with whom you have a ‘difficult’ working relationship. For the purposes of a solo exercise, this shouldn’t be someone that you have a very strong emotional reaction to – just someone that you find a bit difficult to deal with or don’t understand. You know, that ‘difficult’ person that you never seem to see eye to eye with.

    Give yourself a couple of minutes to look at the situation from your own perspective. Notice what you feel about the other person, and what you believe to be true about them.

  2. Now step out of that first position, noticing what you’ve learned, and do whatever it takes to leave that perspective and any negative feelings behind. Floating up above the situation – far up above it often helps. Or physically stepping away. So does distracting yourself – what is your phone number backwards? Only when you’re completely detached from it is it time to do the next step.

  3. You know that other person. You know what they’re like, how they stand, how they breathe, how they talk. Float down into that other person and ‘become’ them – in a method acting kind of way.

    Now – looking back at the first position you, what do you feel? What do you believe about the person in that first position? (Allow time for the answers to come).

    Notice what you learn from this position (again, allow time for the answers to come). Once more, do whatever you need to do to detach yourself from that position and leave any feelings behind.

  4. Come down in a position which is equal distance from the first and the second positions, so you can see both of them in relation to each other. If you’re not feeling fully detached from the first position yet – if you were still seeing it from your usual perspective – back off some way to get some distance, or stand on a chair to view it from higher up.

    • What do you notice from this perspective? Most people will notice that they feel more resourceful about the situation, because they’re viewing it from a detached perspective.
    • What do you notice about the interactions between the two people over there? Notice whatever you learn from this position.
    • And, what advice would you give to the person in first position? What could they do differently?
  1. Now step out of that position, bringing any learnings with you. And come back to first position, and take as long as you need to integrate the learnings from the second and third positions into your experience.

    • What’s different about that situation now?
    • What’s different about how you feel about it, and about the other person?
    • What are you going to do differently next time you encounter that situation?

Now that you’ve played with them a bit, how are you going to use your knowledge of perceptual positions to make a difference to your relationships with others – or to help other people make a difference in their relationships?

Note: The idea of perceptual positions first appeared in the book Turtles All the Way Down: Prerequisites to Personal Genius by John Grinder and Judith Delozier

© 2020, Andy Smith. All rights reserved.

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