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Perspective Matters: How This Simple Practice Can Make You a Better Negotiator

When I think about perspective, I remember Nelson Mandela. The former president of South Africa was an anti-colonialist who opposed Britannic rule and their apartheid system of racial segregation.

He was imprisoned in 1962 for attempting to overthrow the government, where he remained until 1990. Four years later, Mandela was elected the first Black president of a democratic South Africa. How did he not only survive but thrive after spending nearly 30 years in jail? It was all a matter of perspective.

When he was in prison, he chose to see his time there as an opportunity to learn and grow. Mandela put his own feelings aside to get to know and befriend his jailers. To understand their perspective.

Mandela took the same approach with government leaders and other influential figures in South Africa. Taking care to study their perspectives carefully, he won them over, too. And he did all of this from behind bars!

He took everything he knew about each person’s perspective and gently led them to a place where he could skillfully negotiate a better future for South Africa and her people. Incredible.

Abraham Lincoln, another powerhouse for political change, once said, “When I get ready to talk to people, I spend two-thirds of the time thinking what they want to hear and one-third thinking about what I want to say.” This was a man who cared about perspective. And not just the views of his opponents, but how to expertly express his convictions in a way they’d accept.

Both Mandela and Lincoln knew the same secret: effective negotiations require perspective.

An exercise in understanding

Perspective—the ability to see something from another person’s point of view—is really understanding what someone means within the context of who they are.

In Mary T. Lathrap's 1895 poem "Judge Softly" she encourages the reader to "walk a mile in his moccasins." While the original idea didn't come from her, the quote "walk a mile in someone else's shoes" has become part of our culture.

There’s no greater explanation of perspective.

When you wear someone else’s shoes, you put on their emotions, attitudes, opinions, and stories. You see the same things you did before you put their shoes on, but you see everything through a different lens.

A dying art

Understanding perspective has regrettably fallen out of vogue. Seems like every day, another large-scale injustice occurs, and two camps quickly form: “us” vs “them.”

“Us” and “them” have no perspective because they usually don’t respect the opposing side enough to earn it. Both groups are deaf to their opponents and wouldn’t care what they had to say if they could hear them, anyway.

This is polarization. This is the opposite of perspective.

According to a 2020 Brown University study, the U.S. is polarizing faster than other democratic countries like Canada, the United Kingdom, Germany, and Australia.

I’m not going to get into why this may be—a thorough explanation of this phenomenon will probably take sociologists the better part of the next decade to unpack. But what I will say is that we have a perspective problem. And the wider the chasm between us, the less likely we’ll be able to negotiate with them.

There is hope, though. Perspective can triumph if we keep an open mind and foster curiosity. Coincidentally, both are also necessary for successful negotiation.

Build back perspective

To understand someone else’s perspective, you have to be open-minded and curious. This is especially important in negotiation, but it needs to start long before coming to the bargaining table.

Start by seeking advice from others whose perspectives differ from yours. Present your arguments to these impartial parties and see how they respond. By doing this exercise of curiosity and open-mindedness, you may uncover flaws in your arguments or even identify new ideas. Information like this is crucial in negotiation.

When the time comes to start negotiating, don’t get caught up in what you're asking. Knowing how to ask is far more important. The other person’s perspective should inform the way you make your requests. Ask yourself, “How will my counterpart receive the information if I ask this way? IS there a more effective way for me to ask?”

Our perspectives are uniquely composed of our personalities, stories, experiences, and convictions. You’ll never meet another person with a perspective identical to yours, which is why understanding others’ points of view should never go out of style.

Nineteenth-century philosopher William James said, “Whenever two people meet there are really six people present. There is each man as he sees himself, each man as the other sees him, and each man as he really is.”

Since he said that more than 100 years ago, the world has completely changed. But people haven’t. Perspective was as important then as it is now, even though modern society may overlook the benefits.

Don’t go into another negotiation without perspective. There’s power in putting on someone else’s shoes.


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