It’s hard to stand in someone else’s shoes when we’re in the middle of a conflict with them, even when we know that understanding their perspective is important. Here’s a trick of the mind that makes perspective-taking easier.
It’s Friday night, and you’re streaming one of the Star Wars films with a group of friends. You settle into your comfy sofa, a bowl of popcorn nearby, and the movie begins.
A little while later, Chewbacca appears on the screen.
Oh, good grief, you say to your friends. There’s no such thing as a Wookiee! What a ridiculous thing to expect us to believe.
You don’t do that, of course. You suspend your disbelief so that you can appreciate the movie and have a good time with friends.
Suspending your disbelief isn’t just useful for movie-watching. It’s useful during conflict, too.
Perspective-taking is the ability to understand how a situation appears from another point of view. It’s considered a vital conflict resolution ability, and research confirms that perspective-taking increases empathy, another vital component of effective conflict resolution, particularly in close personal and working relationships.
The trouble with perspective-taking is that it’s hard to do well when a conflict feels raw and difficult. When we’re frustrated with someone or don’t like them very much at the moment, it’s a stretch to adopt their perspective deliberately. Even worse, perspective-taking by trying to imagine yourself in their shoes can actually have negative effects.
Rebecca Shafir, author of The Zen of Listening: Mindful Communication in the Age of Distraction, coined the term “get into their movie” for moments like these. It’s one of my favorite little tricks of the mind because it makes perspective-taking familiar and more accessible when we need it most:
The beauty of suspending your disbelief is that you’re not requiring yourself to adopt their view — just stepping into their movie long enough to appreciate the ways their life circumstances led them to a different view. You can decide later what, if any, of their movie is helpful for addressing the rift between you. I almost always find a few gems in their movie that help me find a shared path forward.
As with adopting any new habit or trying out a new idea, practice in low-stakes situations to be better able to do it under stress. Practice at the dinner table when you can’t for the life of you understand why your teen thinks the way she does. Just say to yourself, “Get into her movie.” Practice over the phone when your mother-in-law tells you why you should vote for her favorite political candidate (the one you dislike). Get into her movie. Practice at the conference table when a colleague who mystifies you is going on and on about something. Get into their movie.
For mediators and coaches reading this, get into their movie is a great little phrase to use with your clients. I often share it with my coaching clients and have used it for years in mediation to help parties access each other’s perspectives more easily.
This post was originally published in November 2015 and updated and expanded in 2023. One or more links in this post are Amazon affiliate links, which means I receive a few dimes from Amazon if you buy the book (at no extra cost to you). And, of course, I just turn around and spend those dimes on…more books. Which then inform my writing here for you. It’s a beautiful cycle.