In Dale Carnegie's classic book, How to Win Friends and Influence People, Carnegie lists 30 principles, but Carnegie knew you really only have to follow one rule, and all the others will be done naturally: Try to see things from the other person's point of view. Carnegie knew it and you know it. It is the secret to good human relationships.
But here's something you may not know: You can do it visually. You can do it auditorily by asking, "How would I feel if I had just lost my job?" or whatever the case may be. You can ask yourself questions that make you think about what it would be like to be that other person. But you can also do it visually. You can imagine actually seeing out the other person's eyes. Imagine literally seeing from the other person's point of view. Physically. If they are shorter than you, try to imagine what the world would be like from that height. Try to actually imagine being that person, and include all you know about them.
Do this, and your interactions with that person will be higher quality. It takes a little effort, but you won't break a sweat. It's all in your head.
The ability to empathize is the cornerstone of good human relationships. And good human relationships will make your life easier and better in a thousand different ways.
For example, in a study by researchers from Vanderbilt University, doctors who didn't listen well or look at things from the patient's point of view got twice as many complaints from their patients and were sued more often than doctors with good human relations.
Another researcher found that taxpayers who are being audited are five times more likely to be denied a request by the auditor if they are interacting poorly. In this study, by Loretta Stalans, Ph.D., at Loyola University, the poor human relations was caused by negative expectations. In other words, if the taxpayer thought the auditors were out to get them, they didn't interact well, and the auditors responded to the bad interactions negatively.
Most coaching on human relations is about behavior. But part of good human relations is your point of view — having a point of view that helps your relationships. And in the case of dealing with people, it's almost always useful to assume the best. When dealing with people, assume they are fair, reasonable, and honest until they prove otherwise. Assume they will like you. Assume that if they are grumpy, it is because of something they ate or a fight with their spouse. Do not assume they are just a jerk or that they are out to get you. Your point of view will have an effect on the other person. A negative point of view is not useful in 99.9% of the interactions you'll have in your life.
Other studies have shown that police tend to be more lenient with people who treat them with respect. And they throw the book at disrespectful, angry, or defensive people. Of course. So does everyone else. Cops are people too, and they respond like any other person. Your point of view influences your attitude, and your attitude influences the attitudes of people toward you.
But this principle of trying to see the other person's point of view is not just about good human relations. Getting a different point of view can be useful in just about any circumstance.
At one time I was plagued with injuries. I had always lifted weights, and then suddenly at age 36, I started having tendon and ligament pain in different parts of my body at different times. It was painful, but the significance of it weighed more heavily than the pain. What did this mean? I wondered. Would I have to give up lifting weights? Am I getting old? If I stop lifting, will I get fat? And so on. Worries.
I tried to look at it from several points of view. I imagined my old coach from high school sitting in the chair next to me. What would my problem look like to him? I imagined being on the moon and having a super-powerful telescope that could see through the atmosphere, and I imagined looking down on me sitting there in my living room. My problem looked different from there.
But the most valuable was imagining me at 90 years old standing on the other side of the room looking at me as a 36 year-old. That point of view straightened out my thinking. Several times after that, when the worries came up in my mind again, I remembered to look at it again from the perspective of myself at 90. The worries stopped, and I got on with living. This is but one of many different ways you can use this principle. Let's look at some others.
perspective influences attitude
Keeping a good attitude doesn't come naturally for most people. In a way, society is in a conspiracy to make people conform, and good attitudes are not the norm. "Every story has a villain," says Morris Goodman, "Mine is society itself. Society conditions us to lose."
Morris has climbed from dirt-poor beginnings and succeeded. As many successful people do, he bought an airplane, but on a trip, it stalled and crashed, breaking half the bones in his body, including two vertebrae. He was pronounced dead. But he had trained himself to take on a different point of view, even if the prognosis was dismal, as it was in his case. One at a time, he mastered each task his doctors said he'd never be able to do again.
"Society conditions us to lose." That may be true. But it is definitely true that we can condition ourselves to win. An important step in that direction is to become more flexible with the points of view you accept. A doctors prognosis or "what everyone knows" are only points of view, and often not very useful, productive, or healthy. Train yourself to find other points of view. Keep those that serve your best interests.
The head football coach for Florida State University, Bobby Bowden feels responsible for his players' actions, and sometimes needs to discipline them. "Long ago," he says, "I made up my mind not to make decisions based on public opinion. I never wanted anybody telling me how to discipline my players. I try to treat these players as I would my own children."
So he is coaching the team from the point of view of a father. But, he says, "People write to me saying how a kid is a 'disgrace to the team' and that I ought to kick him off. I write back and ask, 'What if he were your son? What would you want me to do then?' Usually I don't get a letter back."
The point of view he has adopted is these players are like his children and he is like the father, and this point of view guides his actions successfully.
a radical shift in perspective
When you feel angry, you tend to make a certain facial expression. You look angry. Someone you know could look at you and know you're angry, right? Probably. But did you also know that if you deliberately make an angry face — when you're not feeling angry — it will make you feel a little angry? And if you were hooked up to heart-rate monitors and blood pressure cuffs and that sort of thing, the readings would change when you made that face. When you are angry, your heart rate goes up, your blood pressure goes up, your skin temperature rises, your skin makes extra sweat (maybe not noticeable to you, but it can be measured).
The point of all of this is that when you feel anger (or fear), your body has a certain response, naturally. And when you make facial expressions of those feelings even when you're not feeling it at the moment, those facial expressions will make you feel those emotions. And it changes your body's chemistry to be more like those emotions.
But the scientists who discovered these things were Americans and the experimental subjects were also Americans. Now, the question was, did Americans have that response because it is part of our culture, or is it genetic? Would people in other cultures have the same response? Two researchers wanted to find out: Robert Levenson, PhD, and Paul Ekman, PhD.
So they traveled to West Sumatra in Indonesia and studied a culture about as different from ours as you can get: The Minangkabau. They are agrarian, Muslim, matrilineal (following the female line), and they discourage all outward expressions of negative emotions.
The researchers hooked them up to the same monitors, and showed them what facial expressions to try on, and when they made those faces, their bodies reacted the same way Americans' did: Heart rates increased, skin temperatures changed, etc.
But here's the odd part. They didn't feel angry or fearful like Americans did.
"In our culture," says Levenson, "we focus on the physiological sensations that happen when we feel emotions. This is in fact one of the most important aspects of emotion for us."
It's hard to conceive of it otherwise, isn't it? That is such a basic part of our culture, it doesn't seem like a cultural thing at all. What else would emotion be but a direct physical sensation? But you have learned that.
"In their culture," said Levenson, "the people are more entwined. Emotions define their relationships, not bodily sensations." For example, to a Minangkabau, anger is not how her body responds, anger is when a friend is mad at her.
"Physiological responses to emotions are hard-wired into us," explains Levenson, "they're common for all people. But what we do with that information is culturally variable." The Minangkabau have a different perspective on emotions.
Many of the points of view you and I have are not the only points of view possible. And sometimes they are not the most useful. The Minangkabau probably have some distinct advantages from thinking differently about emotion. I am not recommending that point of view, because our point of view probably has advantages too. But I am recommending a flexibility of points of view. And how you gain that flexibility is to deliberately try on different points of view.
In your imagination, try to see things from different points of view. And then choose the most helpful or useful point of view rather than simply seeing things from your automatic point of view. Your habitual way of looking at things may sometimes be the most useful, but many times you can find a better one. And it is worth doing.
The way things look to you has a lot to do with the way you look at things.
Adam Khan is the author of Principles For Personal Growth, Direct Your Mind, and co-author with Klassy Evans of How to Change the Way You Look at Things (in Plain English). Follow his podcast, The Adam Bomb.