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Put yourself in someone else's shoes

Our executive coach Shoeleh Forghani gave a talk at our 2018 function titled Conversations: Art or Science? A talk that has spurred quite a few discussions within our organisation, usually around the theme of how to have better conversations. One of those recent discussions brought up the concept of “putting yourself in someone else’s shoes”. Obviously the idea is to better understand how the other person sees the current idea, or why they hold the view they do. But does the common advice really help? We decided to do a little digging to see if the old adage still holds true.

The Divide

A huge part of consulting is communication and collaboration, usually between parties with very different perspectives. At a time when people feel more divided than ever, we want to give our people the tools they need to have the best conversations they can. To do that we need to see what’s pushing people apart in the first place. In large part there are two key factors:

Selective Exposure

We pay attention to information that supports our existing attitudes, beliefs, and values. With the meteoric rise in the availability of information we’re reliant on this bias to help us sift through the sheer magnitude of information presented to us on a daily basis. But with that comes a very biased stream of information, one that usually reinforces what we already know and believe.

Ideological Silos

We gravitate toward people with attitudes that match our own. Further exacerbating the first phenomenon this creates echo chambers that reinforce rather than question our views.

These factors creep into our work experience as well, in more ways than we may realise. How then are we going to have meaningful, open conversations around new ideas or information? This article explores how self-persuasion can be used to start chipping away at that divide.

Self Persuasion

If the problem is that our ideas or beliefs are not being challenged enough, how can we start to bring in competing arguments in a meaningful way so that people will still be receptive to them?

Rather than presenting an argument to someone else, there is a growing body of evidence that self-persuasion could be a more effective tool for opening people up to those alternative, competing viewpoints. In other words we’re going to ask people to challenge themselves.

Self-persuasion occurs when people reflect on a topic and change (or shift) their attitude without outside input. The most effective method of self-persuasion is known as counterattitudinal argument generation: asking people to consider or generate arguments that contradict their own attitudes and beliefs. Research shows that this approach is quite effective at creating a shift in an individual's attitudes or beliefs. A great exercise to add to your professional toolkit, so how can we implement it?

Try This

Before jumping into a discussion (or even an argument) between two opposing sides, you can try bridging the gap between them by using this method of counterattitudinal argument generation. To do so you would give everyone 5-10 minutes (or longer depending on the complexity of the issue) to think of as many convincing arguments for the other side as they can . In doing so, they will start to think of arguments in favour of the opposing view that align with their own values. Arguments that they might not have heard otherwise. Arguments that can shift where people’s attitudes lie before they enter a conversation.

This process can be critical in bringing two (or more) sides closer together before tackling the harder items on your agenda. So if you’re expecting some tension in your next meeting, and want a more fruitful and collaborative discussion, try making that divide a bit smaller before opening up the lines of communication.

Perspective Taking

The common mistake in the above exercise is to get people to take the opposing side’s perspective as well: “putting yourself in someone else’s shoes”. This can involve imagining the thoughts, values, and feelings of the other side while trying to generate arguments for the other side. We assume this might help us understand the opposing side’s argument, or even help us to generate more persuasive arguments. But recent research by Catapano et al., (2019) seems to indicate the opposite. Putting yourself in someone else’s shoes may actually undermine your receptiveness and openness to change from self-persuasion.

This aligns with previous research that found perspective taking actually intensifies, rather than attenuates competitive feelings and actions in a competitive environment. This can go so far as fostering unethical behavior in negotiations, and pushing people farther apart when there is already a significant divide.

Value Congruence

As pointed out above, we pay more attention to information that supports our own beliefs and values. Taking the opposing side’s perspective during a self-persuasion task generates arguments that don’t support your own beliefs or values. Because of this we’re less receptive to those arguments, and as a whole the task is no longer effective at shifting people’s attitudes. Instead we want people to be making arguments for the other side from their own perspective. This encourages arguments that appeal to their own set of values, which they’re going to find far more persuasive.

Staying Open

Where the goal is to create shifts in people’s attitudes by making them more open to alternative views, we have to be careful when using perspective taking as a tool to do so. Despite a reputation for bringing people together, it may inadvertently be pushing us apart instead. This is particularly important to keep in mind when using the exercise of “self-persuasion”.


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