Dear Tristan: on perspective taking

Dear Tristan,

In my letters on curiosity, disagreements, and being open, I’ve talked a lot about relationships, which is a topic I plan to cover in more depth in a later letter. However, as I’ve been thinking about all these things I’ve been thinking of another ingredient to healthy relationships, something that is especially important when there are disagreements or things you can’t understand about another person: perspective taking.

When we are able to take the perspective of another person, we step outside of our shoes and into theirs. We imagine life from their perspective. Rather than judge what we see them doing, we are able to ask why they are doing it. We see beyond their doing to their identity, and we focus more on what makes us the same rather than that which makes us different.

Your dad and I have been learning a lot recently about a process, a way of being, called Nonviolent Communication. It is something we hope to teach you more about as you get older. It’s a very simple process, but like most simple things, it is not an easy one. Nonviolent Communication (or NVC for short) assumes the best of people rather than the worst. It assumes that behind every act of violence (not just physical violence on a large scale, but the small acts of violence we do to ourselves and each other every day merely through words) is a basic human need that is not being met. The violence or negative behavior is a strategy – albeit a poor one – for attempting to meet that need.

When seen through this light, the negative behaviors of others can become a study in curiosity rather than an annoyance or personal attack. Perspective taking can become this simple process:

  • what is this person doing?
  • what might this person be feeling?
  • what basic human need might that feeling be tied to?

When you realize, for example, that your friend’s angry outburst might come from a place of needing to be known and understood, you’re able to realize that those angry words were never about you, so you don’t have to take them personally. Instead you can respond with empathy, which is really what perspective taking is all about.

NVC has helped me to realize that the ways in which people behave are very rarely (maybe never) about me. Even if a negative emotion or behavior seems directed at me, it’s really about the internal state of that person. NVC has helped me learn perspective taking – helped me learn to step outside feeling hurt, or imagining that someone has judged me or is attacking me. It has helped me to see those actions as mere strategies.

I hope that as you grow up I am able to employ perspective taking with you…that when you do something that hurts me, or have some negative behavior I don’t understand, I can try to imagine what you’re feeling and what need you’re trying to get met. I hope I can then help to meet that need. I hope that I am always able to step outside myself and outside my role as “mom” into just a fellow human being that can see where you’re coming from.

I hope too that when I do things that you don’t understand, or that hurt you (because try as I might not to ever hurt you, I know I am human and probably will), that you will also try to imagine what I’m feeling and needing. Maybe we can help each other by gently guessing what those feelings and unmet needs may be, and help each other find a better strategy that doesn’t “do violence” – even in small ways – to each other or to others.

That’s the power of perspective taking, really – it enables relationships to deepen and it enables us to find ways to meet our needs that don’t involve violence to ourselves or to others.

And ultimately, a life of peace is a much happier life than one of violence. That’s the kind of life I want to lead, the kind of life I want to lead you into.


other letters in this series:
on failing to live up to ideals
on curiosity
on intrinsic motivation (and why we won’t do sticker charts)
on disagreements and choosing a different path
on being open
you are not what you do

Daddy’s letters:

I love you
I’m sorry
Be Yourself
Not All It’s Cracked Up to Be
Be Powerful
Be…just be
Do it for you