Conflict is part of human interaction. Political foes, business rivals and arch enemies disagree and fight one another bitterly because of mutually exclusive interests. A win-win situation is sometimes not possible. Naturally, one will try to find out more about the opponent to predict or pre-empt his action. The purpose is to strategise and win in a zero-sum game.
Even partners will face conflict, although the situation is very different from that faced by foes. Partners who share many similar interests, goals and values can sometimes find themselves in disagreement.
Differences and disagreements can occur between partners or people in close working, social or family relationships. We can all recall experiences of conflict with a boss we respect, a colleague we like, a close friend we confide in or a family member we love, or even with a politician we support.
When partners are in conflict, it is constructive to do less political strategising and more perspective-taking - by which I mean to consider how things appear to the other party.
Depending on where we stand, the view of our living room and the things in it can look very different. Just like our perception of the physical world, perspective matters in our subjective experience of the social world.
The same facts can have different meanings when seen from different perspectives. The perspective each person adopts influences what is considered central or peripheral, obvious or obscure, and even present or absent.
If someone has a tunnel vision, we try to offer a different perspective that has a more complete view. Sometimes, two perspectives may be completely opposite - but each is yet completely valid in different ways, much like the views from opposite sides of a room.
If we do not understand a person's perspective, what is very meaningful and sensible to him may look absurd to us. But if we are going through the same situation, we may behave just like the person did, and think it is perfectly normal or the right thing to do.
So, reality is what things actually are, but a person's reality is what the person thinks and feels it is, given the circumstances. The person's reality affects his actions.
Studies in the behavioural sciences have shown that we don't see things as they are. We see things as we are, and how we are affected by the events or situation. We make interpretations according to our beliefs and past experiences about ourselves and others. We give meanings to things in the context of the circumstances we live or find ourselves in.
Once we have adopted a perspective, it is difficult to suspend or change it. It is even harder to take another's perspective that is different from ours.
This is mainly due to the human tendency called confirmatory bias. We see what we expect to see. We seek out and interpret information in a way that will likely confirm our perspective.
So, the same decision, event, statement or picture can mean something very different to different individuals or groups. And everyone is often convinced that he or she right. Many misunderstandings could have been avoided if we had asked: "What else could it mean?"
If we can see things differently, from another person's perspective, we can have fewer strong disagreements and more constructive responses to contentious issues. At the minimum, we will be more careful in what we say or do in a difficult situation to avoid escalating the negatives.
Can some of the comments and positions on recent issues in Singapore benefit from more perspective-taking?
Consider the policy on the tightening of foreigner inflow, the disciplinary sanctions meted out to the staff handling the hepatitis C outbreak at the Singapore General Hospital, or the activities marking the first anniversary of founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew's death.
On issues such as these, can we suspend or get outside our own perspective and try to see things from another's perspective?
If we can and when we do so, we may find our own perspective not as valid as we thought. Or, at least, it is not the only valid one. Of course, we may still hold on to our perspective for good reasons. But we are now able to address the differences better because we understand the other perspective.
MISTAKING A PERSPECTIVE
There are two main pitfalls to avoid when we try to take another person's perspective.
The first is the overconfidence that we are succeeding in seeing things from another person's perspective, especially when we honestly tried.
Recall the time when our partner was displeased with our gift and doubly upset that we did not try to understand what he or she wants. The fact is we did try to take our partner's perspective, but ended up with a mistaken one.
Research has found that people are highly inaccurate when they infer what a person is thinking or feeling by observing the person's facial expressions and behaviours.
More importantly, people are overconfident that they have managed to get the person's perspective right, as shown by their own assessment of their accuracy.
The second pitfall is uncritically treating another person's perspective as valid and using it to manage the disagreement. When the perspective is based on mistaken assumptions, the consequence is often a misleading conclusion and missing the real issues.
For example, a perspective on an incident may assume that a leader had access to a critical piece of information when he made a decision.
If this assumption is factually false but not corrected or questioned, the disagreements could end up with judgments about integrity when the real issue could be information flow.
It is politically correct to say we respect different perspectives. It takes personal conviction and political courage to state the pros and cons of each perspective, especially the degree to which it is valid or invalid.
POSITIVE HABITS IN PERSPECTIVE-TAKING
In addition to avoiding overconfidence and uncritical acceptance, we can adopt three positive habits in perspective-taking.
First, be inclusive. Honestly consider other perspectives that are very different from our own.
When we compare opposing perspectives, we may discover similarities. When we find differences, we can see if their different strengths and weaknesses can compensate and complement each other. Drawing on both perspectives, a new and better perspective may emerge.
Ironically, inclusivity may be most important when disagreements between perspectives are based on strong values and principles. We believe in integrity, fairness, meritocracy, racial and religious harmony, accountability and rule of law. When we vigorously pursue our own perspective driven by one of these values or principles, could it be that the person we have a disagreement with is motivated by some of the other values and principles that are also dear to us?
So, we should pay attention to how a value or principle is applied to the specific context, and consider how other values and principles may be relevant.
We can also be mindful that when our perspective is dominated by a value or principle, we may end up arguing or behaving in a way that is not as valued-based or principled as we should be.
Second, be interactive. Studies have shown true empathy does not come about by just imagining what the person is going through, no matter how hard we try.
We need to interact with the person by asking and listening to find out the concerns and circumstances as perceived or experienced by the person. This need for interaction applies to close family and social relationships, but also relationships between leaders and followers.
When leaders and followers are engaged in naturalistic interactions - as opposed to contrived ones - they are more likely to tell each other what they truly think, instead of what they thought the other wants to hear. As a result, one can better appreciate another's concerns and circumstances.
Over time, quality interactions build mutual trust, reciprocity norms, social cohesion and even shared values between leaders and followers. All these will motivate them to see things from each other's perspective, and facilitate conflict resolution and collaboration.
But the converse is also true. When trust is low and we take each other's perspective, we will not like what we see. Research has shown that in such situations, seeing things from another's perspective will polarise opposing views further and result in more conflict.
Finally, strike an intermediate note between subjectivity and objectivity. To truly empathise with another person's perspective, one needs to be affective in adopting that perspective - and this involves emotions and subjectivity. But empathy must be accompanied by some level of detachment to maintain objectivity in evaluating issues and perspectives.
Detachment means the ability to step back to see the bigger picture, like when we zoom out in Google Earth to fly around with a virtual helicopter view. When we fly too high, we lose sight of important details on the ground. So, high-flyers must be sensitive to their quick ascent as they seek the helicopter view.
They must know when and how to come closer down to earth - to see what matters below them.
If we can be more inclusive, interactive and intermediate when we manage disagreements, many differences may converge. They become pathways towards common or complementary goals.
If we learn to see things from another's perspective and apply it adequately, we are more likely to prevent misunderstandings, enable constructive conversations and achieve win-win solutions.
- The writer is director of the Behavioural Sciences Institute, Lee Kuan Yew Fellow and professor of psychology at the Singapore Management University.