Perceptual Positions

Understanding everyone’s needs and interests

Purpose: To provide a systemic framework that will enable you to define more accurately what the higher level interests of all stakeholders are so that any agreement is much more likely to be sustainable over time because it meets those needs.

 “Wisdom comes from multiple perspectives” – Gregory Bateson

The Framework

  • First Position: Your own thoughts, feelings and attitudes from your own perspective.
  • Second Position: Stepping into the other person’s shoes, experiencing the current situation and potential for discussion and agreement, as if you are the other party.
  • Third Position: Metaphorically stepping outside of the negotiation (“going to the balcony”)[1] and seeing both (or all) parties objectively as if you are an independent observer.
  • Fourth Position: Taking the “systems” perspective. In other words noticing how this relationship is linked to other systems, and creates ripples and effects in them.

This process can seem to be challenging when you first begin to experiment with it because it does require you to let go of your own views (and assumptions, biases and prejudices) for long enough to get insight about how the other parties may be feeling. However, with practice, you will notice that your ability to get an accurate understanding of their needs and possible hidden agendas increases rapidly. Some useful questions for each of the ‘positions’

First: From our own point of view:

  • What are we seeing, hearing and feeling if this negotiation is successful?
  • What’s important to us about this deal?
  • What will success mean to us?
  • What will a failure or breakdown in negotiations mean?
  • Under what circumstances would we walk away from a deal (our BATNA)?

Second: Imagine you can step into their world, leaving behind your own views and attitudes. These questions can then be answered as if you are the other party, ideally without judging them:

  • What are their immediate expectations of this deal?
  • What’s important to us about this arrangement?
  • What does it need to give us?
  • How ready are we for this kind of situation?
  • What has our experience been so far? Especially regarding our dealings with you.
  • Under what circumstances would we walk away from these discussions?

Third: The perspective that an external observer would have if they looked in from outside:

  • How are these two parties relating to each other?
  • What are the dynamics of the relationship?
  • What could either party do (especially you) to enhance the arrangement?

Fourth: This position is much more “systemic” and looks at other relationships and connections that both parties have. It considers other consequences and effects that may arise:

  • Looking at the bigger picture, who and what else are affected by this deal?
  • What are the implications for them?
  • What longer term feedback loops are there that will help us to identify hidden consequences of any agreement?

[1] Thanks to Ronald Heifetz at Harvard for this expression


Case History

This example continues from the foot of the ‘Logical Levels’ page

  • In the First Position (the manager’s thoughts and feelings) it was clear that she was looking for a good performance from the individual as there was a certain amount of pride in the team’s output to its customers, and this regular problem was causing additional re-working and pressure on deadlines that were already tight.
  • After a while spent in the Second Position (reviewing the situation through the experience of the other person) the manager suddenly realised that the other person could be feeling exposed and somewhat lonely after a job change some months earlier. Although there was no logical reason for this, and nothing had been said, the intuitive sense she felt was very strong.
  • The Third Position (looking in on the situation as an external observer) gave some more information about how the team member had previously had a role that required regular communication outside of the team, and although he now had a role that was  crucial to the operation, there was no external contact. The learning from this position was so strong that she began to review the whole of the operation. She found that her focus on the goals had been at the expense of the team dynamics which had made them all as successful as they had become, and that the team spirit (and sense of purpose) was in danger of being eroded.
  • From the Fourth Position (looking at the inter-relationships between the ‘bigger systems’ of which this relationship forms a part), it became evident that this team could become a role model for the organisation in relation to other more far-reaching cultural changes that the manager had in mind.

The decision the manager took was to bring the group together without mentioning the original reason. They reviewed their performance as a team especially in relation to their customers. As part of their setting of a new outcome it was suggested that someone should be nominated to liaise with the customer at least once very two months to ensure that the requirements were being met well. The person who had been making the repeated error immediately volunteered for this additional role, and without ever having to address the issue directly any further, the earlier problem has never reoccurred.

The repetitive problem described in this example is resolved at a higher ‘logical level’ than the presenting problem. The problem shows itself at the level of behaviour with someone making a regular error. The manager intervenes at the next level above (Competency) by undertaking some coaching. This does not work because the real issue is finally identified as being to do with a sense of belonging to, and being valued by, the group. When actions are taken at the level of Identity (sense of purpose) and Values (being recognised and respected), the issue is finally resolved in a very positive manner for all concerned.

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