There is a gulf widening between us. It’s happening both inside and outside of the workplace. The remote working situations of the last year may have only served to increase the differences between people’s lived experiences. We may sit in a video-conference meeting and wonder why other people are reacting so differently from the way we are. We may scroll through the news and feel mystified by the actions of others. There is a cognitive skill that we all need to bridge this gap, and it’s the skill of perspective-taking.

However, perspective-taking requires skill and motivation. Luckily, virtual reality (VR) removes motivation from the equation and allows us to experience immersive perspective-taking. That experience can be all we need to motive us to engage in this powerful skill — with or without a headset.

Perspective-taking has been defined as “the ability to understand how a situation appears to another person and how that person is reacting cognitively and emotionally to the situation.” In other words, it’s the ability to place ourselves in someone else’s position while recognizing their point of view, experiences and beliefs. This recognition fosters understanding between people. There is no sole approach to perspective-taking. However, the conscious attempt to understand another’s point of view can build new neural pathways, create real learning and reshape interactions.

Try it right now: Think of someone you work with who has a very different approach or point of view. Spend one minute considering the world from your co-worker’s perspective, literally imagining what their life is like. Now, believe or not, that one minute has put you in a better frame of mind to interact with that person. The simple prompt to consider someone else’s perspective results in more positive outcomes. And, the more skilled you become, the better outcomes you can expect. 

Imagine – anytime you needed to – you were able to pause, take a deep breath and engage in skilled perspective-taking. Through understanding and effort, you can have more fruitful discussions rather than heated arguments. You can have understanding instead of frustration. You can find creative solutions instead of impasses. That is the power of perspective-taking.

Fortunately, perspective-taking can be learned and practiced. Some of us find it easier to master than others, but it’s a technique that anyone can access at anytime, anywhere. However, we all have to overcome some common barriers, including ourselves.

Your Brain’s Job Is Self-Protection

It is important to acknowledge that our brains are hardwired for egocentric anchoring and adjustment. In other words, the very organ we use to make sense of our world places us at the center. It makes us the hero and ascribes others supporting roles. This phenomenon explains why we immediately refer to our own experiences, opinions and perspectives as our default. There are four common internal cognitive biases everyone faces when trying to take another’s perspective.

When we engage in perspective-taking, we move away from an egocentric starting point in order to understand others. It’s not easy; the process is gradual and requires hard work. However, with practice, our skills improve. As we reach positive outcomes, we become more and more motivated to put in the effort.

Now, imagine that same co-worker, again. This time, instead of having to use your imagination, what if you were able to put on a VR headset? Once you put it on, you are immersed in a scenario where you see yourself from your co-worker’s point of view. You can hear your co-worker’s thoughts and experience a scenario from their perspective. Consider what insights this experience might give you and how it might encourage perspective-taking outside of the headset.

Perspective-taking creates empathy. Companies are using VR to transform the way their employees care for and consider their customers and their co-workers.

Perspective-taking in Training

Hilton created scenarios where team members experience the guest’s perspective during check-in, breakfast service and room service. By experiencing the guest’s perspective, team members are able to design processes and programs that support a great experience. Perspective-taking in VR can transform not just the customer experience but also a company’s culture by using it for equitable and inclusive workplace training.

PwC recently released a case study on using VR for their inclusive leadership training. Instead of classroom training or eLearning, managers put on headsets to experience hiring, staffing and performance scenarios. Their early data compared VR learners to classroom learners and resulted in:

  • 4 times faster training times.
  • 275% more confidence in applying new skills.
  • 75 times more emotionally connected to the content than the classroom learners.

These are examples of how companies are using perspective-taking experiences in training. These are the same VR experiences that can motivate employees to practice perspective-taking beyond the headset.

After Motivation, Action!

When people have impactful, VR-powered, perspective-taking experiences, they are in a heightened state for learning. Employees remove the headset and are uniquely primed for new types of behavior and learning. They are more motived to learn. However, even without this experience, you can strengthen your perspective-taking skills, using these four steps:

1. Seek understanding

When communicating with others, our default is to consider our personal goals. In this first step of perspective-taking, we mindfully choose to set aside our own goals. Instead, we purposefully center the perspective of the other person. We let go of our egos. We decide, instead, to engage with the other person’s lived experiences and the way they perceive the world.

2. Ideate

How are they perceiving the world? In this step, we imagine several possibilities; we work through the common barriers to perspective. Then, we navigate them to see the other person clearly and imagine how they might be thinking about a situation. These are assumptions; they may not be the truth, but they’re as close as we can get. We do this until we’re ready to build a hypothesis.

3. Hypothesize

Now that we have some ideas, we narrow our thoughts down to our best guesses. These should be solid hypotheses we can test and use to connect in our interaction with the other person. If our hypothesis is correct, what outcomes can we expect? If we are wrong, how might we know?

4. Observe and adjust

We hold our hypothesis lightly and are ready for new information about the other person. Now, we are ready to engage with, observe and adjust our assumptions. We have an open discussion. We are curious and ready for insights.

Were we able to connect and collaborate with them? If yes, success! If not, it’s time to go deeper and further challenge our assumptions. Whatever the outcome, the process of perspective-taking isn’t over. It’s a constant cycle of empathy, imagination, estimation and discovery.