How A Change In Perspective Can Reduce Your Stress

In a recent essay for the Washington Post, Richard Weissbourd wrote about teaching children to “zoom in” and “zoom out” to take in other peoples’ points of view. Taking someone else’s perspective is more than just a technique for teaching children empathy, though. It may be very useful in your adult life as well. What does this technique entail, and how can it help you manage your stress?

The Zoom Lens

Weissbourd, a child and family psychologist, writes that you should teach children to “zoom in on their own concerns, but then zoom out to consider the bigger picture and take other perspectives into account,” asking questions that help kids see the world through another person’s perspective. He’s talking specifically about teaching empathy in situations like the Syrian refugee crisis, but the technique is an important one in all aspects of life.

A Dying Art

There’s been a sharp decline in the skill of “perspective-taking” in the last 40 years, as measured in an empathy test given to college students over the decades. That reduction in empathy doesn’t just make us more self-centered; it makes us more stressed.

Tasha Eurich, writing for Entrepreneur, describes a particularly stressful incident involving a cancelled flight. Among a throng of angry passengers, Eurich went to rebook her flight to Manila. She was about to unleash her anger on the harried ticketing agent when something stopped her: The fear in his eyes. Suddenly she saw the situation from his point of view. She asked him questions and learned that he had been on his way home from a full shift when he, and the other agents, were called back to face this mob of angry passengers. His wife was out of town and he was supposed to have picked his kids up from school. Taking in the agent’s perspective diffused Eurich’s anger instantly. 

The Empathy Circle

Eurich’s feelings of empathetic generosity carried her as far as her hotel, where she waited for an hour only to hear there was no room available. At that point, an exhausted Eurich says she broke into “a full-on ugly cry.” A hotel manager felt empathy for her, helped her calm down, and found her a place to sleep. Empathy and perspective-taking can relieve your own stress and allow you to relieve the stress of others. 

Easing Your Way in the World

Exercising your ability to take other people’s perspectives will not only help you cope when things don’t go as planned; it may also make you better at your job. If you’re able to see the world through someone else’s point of view, you can more readily collaborate, make sales, form alliances at work, and manage employees. This is especially true for anyone in a position of power over others. Those who can consider things from the point of view of their underlings are consistently more effective at managing them. 

Improving Your Empathy

How can you improve your skills at perspective-taking? One very pleasant way is to read more literary fiction. Studies are finding that reading fiction helps people to “get inside the characters’ heads” and understand someone else’s point of view, which is practice for the empathy required in real life situations. Here are some more tips on improving your perspective-taking skills, courtesy of The Emotion Machine blog:

  • Remember your perspective isn’t the only one in the world.
  • When faced with a problem, walk yourself through everyone’s point-of-view.
  • From each perspective ask, “What is this person thinking or feeling in this situation?”
  • Try imagining yourself in the other person’s shoes. What does the world look like through their eyes? What’s it like to experience life as this person?
  • Identify common ground.
  • Acknowledge differences.
  • Seek resolutions based on this new information. What are some ways to solve this problem while respecting everyone’s needs.

Studies are finding that practicing empathy skills can help diagnosed narcissists to improve their behavior. Even psychopathic prisoners have benefitted from empathy training. If it can help you lower your stress levels in response to a crisis, improve your relationships, make you more effective at work, and even make you a better person, then it’s definitely a skill worth cultivating.