The Power of Perspective Taking


I am forever indebted to the educators who shaped my life. I credit them with so much of what is good about me.

That includes the worst teacher I had in elementary school, Mr. Perkins. I am pretty sure he didn't like kids all that much (and look I get it, I don't like kids much either. So I didn't pursue teaching young kids as a profession). And I am even more certain he didn't like me (again, totally get it. I was not an easy kid to have in the classroom).

But, despite this general feeling of dislike, he taught me a lesson that has stayed with me for more than thirty years: the power of perspective taking.

One day, towards the end of the school year and the end of the school day, Mr. Perkins had no game plan for the last hour before the school bell rang to dismiss us. Spontaneously, he sat up in his chair, “We are going to do an activity,” he told us.

He grabbed a piece of paper and wrote on it, took out scissors, and cut long pieces and folded them up. “On these sheets are topics. You will draw one and then do a three minute talk about it.”

Stand up and talk? I am in. I volunteered to go first, of course.

I walked up front and drew a piece of paper. On the inside it said: Capital Punishment (like a 12-year-old would have a well developed position on this topic? What was he thinking?)

“Do you agree or disagree with capital punishment?” he asked me.

“I agree!” I said, without having thought through anything about capital punishment. I took a position on what I thought the RIGHT answer was.

“OK, then for three minutes I want you to talk against capital punishment,” he told me.

Did he not hear me? “No, I am FOR capital punishment,” I replied, frustrated that he was not listening.

“Yep, I heard you. That is why you are going to talk against it!” he smirked.

I don’t want to overstate this moment in my 12-year-old life but it changed me.

It was the first time I understood there are two (sometimes more) sides to any issue under consideration. It occurred to me there are people who disagreed with capital punishment. But why? In that moment I had to imagine I was a person who disagreed with capital punishment. I doubt I said much of importance, seeing as how I was 12, but it opened something in me that has stayed with me to this day.

This exercise was central to my evolution as a human. It revealed many ideas are not absolute. It is only through exchanging ideas and dialogue, listening, and being respectful of others, we can come to appreciate different points of view.

In the 6th grade, our politics and beliefs were not determined. For most of us, we adopted the beliefs of what we had seen and heard from our parents, and what we learned at school, or church, or from consuming media.

Today, I struggle to find people who will engage me in conversation about topics that are not cut and dry. I get it, why would you talk with someone who has a different point of view and risk learning something new? That might require you to reassess your belief and maybe change it. Yikes!

But when was the last time you were willing to change your mind on something?

No, seriously.

You had a position, you were presented information that caused you to re-evaluate that position, and as a result you CHANGED YOUR MIND.

This is rare.

We are so committed to maintaining our beliefs, we won't even consider any information that might cause us to question or reconsider.

Let's all agree to work on this together (and with the holidays around the corner and the likelihood you may be spending time with people who see the world differently than you do, well, the timing is perfect).

So, here's to perspective taking. Here's to changing your mind. And here's to Mr. Perkins.