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Perceptual Positions

Unless you’ve been holed away in a cave somewhere, you probably know that the biggest sporting event in the world, the Olympic games, is taking place right now in Tokyo - it began on 23 July and is set to end on 8 August 2021. The media has been covering all the events religiously but the biggest scoop that they just can't seem to get enough of is that of Simone Biles. Again, unless you have been living under a rock, you may have heard that the 24-year old American gymnast pulled out of a team competition citing mental health issues. It came as no surprise that American opinion towards Biles’ decision was conflicting. Despite many portraying Biles’s decision to withdraw as brave, and applauding her for shedding light on mental health heavily stigmatised in sport, there were many who condemned her for letting her team down and quitting in the face of adversity. This conflict has taken over social media, with people arguing in positions both for and against the young athlete.


This difference in opinion, or conflict is natural to us as humans. Some have even gone on to say that it is such an innate facet that wherever there is any scope for interaction, conflict is inevitable. While that might be a little far-fetched, conflict itself is not necessarily a problem because it draws eyes to issues that need to be addressed. Webster beautifully defined conflict as “A mental struggle resulting from incompatible or opposing needs, drives, wishes, or external or internal demands”. The standard psychology definition of the term is “the occurrence of mutually antagonistic or opposing forces, including events, behaviors, desires, attitudes, and emotions.” However, in interpersonal relations, conflict refers to a disagreement, discord, or friction that occurs when the actions or beliefs of one or more individuals are unacceptable to and resisted by others.


Psychologists have come up with several explanations in order to understand the cause of conflict. One such explanation is that of the ‘fighting instinct’, as espoused by Simmel, Freud and Lorenz. Freud, as part of his famed psychodynamic approach, said that man has an innate instinct for aggression which is responsible for all conflict in human society. However, a simpler and more practical approach is one that suggests that conflict is attributable to individual differences. According to this theory, we engage in conflict simply because we are different from other people. In terms of nature, attitudes, ideals, ideas, and interests, no two individuals are identical. Their disparities, as well as their inability to accommodate each other, cause them to engage in some form of conflict in order to pursue their respective goals.


A major argument that Biles’ supporters brought up was that of empathy. Many of the haters were asked to do at least one flip before criticizing the athlete. This is the root idea behind Perceptual Positions, "Before you criticize someone, walk a mile in their shoes." In other words, you can't really understand someone until you've experienced what it's like to be in their situation.

The theory of Perceptual Positions was given by John Grinder and Judith DeLozier in 1987. It was an extension of some previous concepts, like referential index - a formal way of indicating reference - and Gregory Bateson's concepts of double and triple description - critical analytical methods that attempted to bridge the connection between mind and evolution. The 3rd position was influenced by Milton Erickson's hypnotherapeutic concept of disassociation. Robert Dilts and Todd Epstein also contributed to further research and development in this area during the early and mid 1990s.

In its simplest form, perceptual positions refers to taking another position outside of your usual view. In other words, it is a form of modelling that allows us to step into somebody else’s shoes and experience the world through their senses - see what they see, hear what they hear, and feel what they feel. Anecdotal evidence has presented it as a powerful tool for ultimate self-awareness. It has a wide range of applications in business, politics, workspaces, research, sales, and even relationships.


Let’s examine one example with respect to application - its effectiveness in market research. Market research is the process of understanding how well a new service is going to do or a product is going to sell through research which is conducted directly with potential customers. In any project, the task is to establish a ‘representation’ of what consumers do or what consumers think; we try to establish behavioural and mental ‘facts’. So researchers also begin by providing a description, or a representation, that corresponds to the mental disposition and actions of consumers. It is ideal because it helps to reduce the uncertainty surrounding the decisions to be made. However, market research costs billions of dollars each year. Perceptual positions eradicates the need for this process! By effectively enabling and utilising perceptual positions, companies can understand their consumers and customers better and shape their products as well as selling experience accordingly.


We do not experience reality directly, and we subconsciously tend to filter our perceptions before we are even aware they exist! It is a given, then, that we can never fully understand another person – even those we believe we’re closest to. That being said, how much more of a task will we find it to be if it is someone we don't get along with or disagree with frequently? According to perceptual positions, we do not have a problem with the difficult person themselves, rather, it’s our internal representation of them that causes this conflict. We figure out a way to change our response when we can change this mental representation. By considering one’s interactions from different perspectives, we can find solutions to a range of interpersonal challenges, whether with friends, peers, coworkers, or family. Issues may range from things like ineffective communication to dealing with long term conflict or broken relationships.


There is a beautiful song by the Head and the Heart with lyrics that go this way,


“Until you learn to love yourself

The door is locked to someone else

I'm just as damaged as you are

Scattered to pieces with you gone

Without the dark, there is no light

But don't give the dust an instant night

I saw the signs you were leaving

But I didn't wanna believe it

This could be so easy

If you could see you through my eyes

I tell myself not to let it go

Hold on to something so beautiful


The singer emphasizes that his lover ought to see herself through his eyes - in this case, there is a conflict because the singers’ lover does not believe herself worthy of love, claiming that she is broken. However, the singer wants to reassure her that she is worthy and beautiful, and she only needs to look at herself through his perspective to see. This is one of the simplest, most primal forms of perceiving things from different positions.


There are multiple benefits of applying perceptual positions in situations where we encounter conflict in our lives:

  • First, it allows us self-awareness and a better understanding of our own perception of the world.

  • Second, it fosters empathy and helps us to better understand our peers.

  • Third, it enables us to develop an objective viewpoint, free from bias.

Thus, it is evidently a wonderful tool to discover a new perspective or gain insight into any situation. This method has shown to be most effective when participants physically adopt different positions and associate strong memories to each of these positions to accompany the three perspectives.


There are usually 3 Perceptual Positions:

  1. Position one: Through your own eyes

  2. Position two: Through the eyes of the other person in your interaction/altercation

  3. Position three: Fly on the wall observing the interaction, aka third person observer

Let us examine these positions in detail.


First Position

This is the simplest, as it is essentially your own experience for an event. This is generally called a fully associated position. That is, it is absolutely undiluted from objectivity and undiluted from another’s perspective. It is an amalgamation of all your experiences, personality, genetics, culture, and whatever other factors are involved in what makes you you. You are looking at the world through your own eyes and processing it through your own “map of the world”.


Second Position

In the second perceptual position, we see the world through the other person’s eyes. This allows us to get some insight into how the opposite person thinks and feels about the situation - or in other words, sense how the other person builds their map. Since it is a radically different perspective, it will help build empathy and understanding. It accompanies a dawning realisation of the fact that no matter how unreasonable, disruptive or even just flat out weird someone’s behaviour may seem to us; it does make perfect sense to them. It is the position for learning and modelling. Modelling transforms from a state of the unknown to the realm of the known. According to neuro-science, modelling activates mirror neurons in the nervous system that are behaviourally dormant in you but are functionally the same as the neurons that are active in the other person. This position accelerates and deepens the learning process. By adopting and considering the position of the other person, there is a subtle sense of identification and you begin to see the situation (“the world”) through the eyes of the other person and to feel sympathy, though not necessarily approval.


Third position

The third perceptual position is where you assume an objective observer position. In third you see and hear yourself and others outside of you as if you were watching a film, and introspecting regarding the nature of both the protagonists. It prompts a step back from emotionally charged experiences of the two people in the situation to a more relaxed, casual view, which makes for objectivity. It throws new light into situations, prompts new questions and observations and focuses on seeing and hearing the bigger picture, which would have been impossible when directly involved within the situation. It allows you to pick up on the nitty-gritty that may make or break the relationship entirely. Overall, the emotions generated are more objective and neutral than those experienced in both other positions.


Here is one way to practice this method so that you can effectively apply it in a conflict situation. Think of a person with whom you may have trouble getting along. It may be a co-worker, teacher or cousin. If you are attempting this for the first time, it would be ideal to pick someone you don’t have a very strong emotional reaction to – just someone that you find a bit difficult to deal with or don’t understand. Reflect back on a situation that has ideally happened a short time ago, and the details are still vividly marked in your memories.


In order to use Perceptual Positions effectively, you have to learn to anchor them in clearly separate spaces. This can be done using "Spatial Anchors" -- that is, we use the metaphor of separate physical locations for each of the Perceptual Positions and create strong associations whether kinesthetic, spatial or cognitive, to them. Once those are well and truly established, you may begin with the first position. 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.


Some questions to ask yourself in the first position may include:

  • What do you see, hear, think and feel in this moment?

  • What is your response to these stimuli?

  • What emotions are you experiencing right now?

  • What are you thinking and feeling in this relationship?

  • Where is this threat or challenge emerging from?

  • What about the speech or body language of the other person is causing this?

  • Is the threat directed towards your environment or your behaviour?

  • Do you feel your skills and competence are being challenged?

  • Do you think your beliefs and values are being threatened?

  • Is the other person saying one thing, but conveying something else in their body language?

  • What is the impact of this argument upon you?

  • Why is it critical that this conflict is resolved?

  • How committed are you to working on a solution?

Make sure the answers are as specific as possible - for instance, instead of saying - “I was angry”, you can establish proof of your raging emotions by observing your body language, speech and more, and expressing them as it happened in real time - “I was angry. I know this because I began inadvertently clenching my jaw and balling my hands into fists. My head began pounding slightly and I could feel an ache coming on. I saw red.”


When you have explored this, gently exit that first position and return to yourself in the present moment. Then, have them take on the second position. In the second position, explore the same questions. When you have explored this, shed that second position and restore yourself to the present moment.


Now it is time for the third position. This role calls for an unemotional, unbiased, rational, and objective space. It is useful to take a break at this point, move about, and perhaps get a drink of water. After returning, gently coax yourself into the third position. See yourself as a speck of dust, as a fly on the wall. Consider both sides of the relationship in a detached way, and ask yourself the following questions:

  • What sort of relationship do you observe?

  • What do you think of the first position in the relationship)?

  • How do you feel towards the second person in this relationship?

  • What is the nature of the interaction you observed?

  • What do you think would be a good point for the two individuals to meet halfway?

Once you have the necessary insights from the third position, return to your original position and think again about the situation. It is very likely that it will differ from your previous observations, and make you realise things that you did not realise before, and see new options and choices. However, even if not, don’t worry. You may try to repeat the exercise at a later stage with a different situation and go through the steps again. As in all exercises, practice makes perfect holds true and it takes some time and effort. If that does not suffice, consider seeking an NLP coach to act as a guide through the process.


Understanding and knowing perceptual positions frees your mind to go into a metaphor of your own choice which tends to bring the unconscious mind and intuitive powers, strongly into play and work to solve a problem or move forward in an area of life or work. It can make the difference of a lifetime in your relationships with others. So, the next time you see a person you tend to usually disagree with, and attempt to converse with them, you can be better armed for the discussion because you've attained a better understanding of where they're coming from and can reach a solution far more easily than the usual roundabout.


References:

APA Dictionary of Psychology. (n.d.). APA. Retrieved July 30, 2021, from https://dictionary.apa.org/conflict

Hoag, J. D. (2008, February 4). NLP Perceptual Positions, by John David Hoag. Copyright 2009 John David Hoag. http://www.nlpls.com/articles/perceptualPositions.php

Hui, J., Cashman, T., & Deacon, T. (2008). Bateson’s Method: Double Description. What is It? How Does It Work? What Do We Learn? Biosemiotics, 77–92. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-1-4020-6706-8_6

Mondal, P. (2014, April 14). Conflict: What are the Causes of Conflict? Your Article Library. https://www.yourarticlelibrary.com/sociology/conflict-what-are-the-causes-of-conflict/35118

NLP World. (2019, February 19). Perceptual Positions. https://www.nlpworld.co.uk/nlp-glossary/p/perceptual-positions/

Smith, A. (2021, January 12). Understanding And Using The Milton Model 10: Switching Referential Index. Practical NLP. https://nlppod.com/milton-model-switching-referential-index/

This article on 'Perceptual Positions' has been contributed by Rhema Blessie Merigala who is student of Amity University, Mumbai and peer reviewed by Saumya Joshi who is a psychology enthusiast, currently in third year of undergraduation from Vivekananda College, Delhi University.


Rhema and Saumya are both part of the Global Internship Research Program (GIRP), which is mentored by Anil Thomas.


GIRP is an initiative by (International Journal of Neurolinguistics & Gestalt Psychology) IJNGP and Umang Foundation Trust to encourage young adults across our globe to showcase their research skills in psychology and to present it in creative content expression.


Anil is an internationally certified NLP Master Practitioner and Gestalt Therapist. He has conducted NLP Training in Mumbai, and across 6 other countries. The NLP practitioner course is conducted twice every year. To get your NLP certification

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