Nearly everyone has the ability to view a relationship or situation from the perspective of another person, to imagine what that other is seeing, hearing, feeling, and thinking. In fact, we
do this all the time – we are continually assessing others’ states of mind, their intentions, what they might say or do next. It’s a mostly unconscious process, a faculty we are born with
and continue to develop as we grow.
…we attune to the internal shifts in another person, as they attune to us, and our two worlds become linked as one. Through facial expressions and tones of voice, gestures and postures – some so fleeting they can be captured only on a slowed-down recording – we come to “resonate” with one another.
We come into the world wired to make connections with one another, and the subsequent neural shaping of our brain, the very foundation of our sense of self, is built upon these intimate exchanges …
– Dan Siegel, Mindsight. (Dan Siegel is a psychiatrist, psychotherapist, researcher, and author.)
Even other animals are able to do this; a dog, for instance, shows by its behavior that it is sizing up the mental states and intentions of the people it is around.
Of course we may do this well or sometimes not so well – we can easily be wrong. But this ability that we all have is a key component of our being to relate to one another, to our social interactions.
We can also, most of us, imagine being a neutral third party observer, watching and listening to an interaction between ourself and another person. Doing this, when we do it well, helps temper our personal emotions, assumptions, and beliefs with a more objective perspective.
Each position has its strengths and weaknesses:
If I tend to be in Self position exclusively, I will feel things more intensely, appreciating the good times and detesting the bad; I will tend to be a person who enjoys my own life (or not, if it’s difficult), and I will know clearly what I want and let others know too. On the other hand, I might be perceived as arrogant, self-centered, or selfish (these positions are embedded in our language!).
Someone who prefers Observer position will tend to be less emotional and more objective, but others may seem him or her as cold and unfeeling, unexpressive, and distant.
Being strongly associated into Other position will make you empathetic, sensitive to the feelings and needs of others, but if you’re not careful you may neglect your own wants and needs or even forget what they are – you may allow other people to “walk all over you.”
– Connirae Andreas, teaching materials
The notion of the three “perceptual positions,” Self, Other, and Observer, has been a basic part of NLP (Neuro-Linguistic Programming) since it’s beginnings in the early 70s (and undoubtedly goes
back to our beginnings as human beings). Early on in NLP it was assumed that some people’s limitations came from being “stuck” in one position: if I’m stuck in Other, for instance, I would be
overwhelmed by other people’s feelings; if I’m stuck in Observer position, I might come off as cold and unfeeling and have a hard time connecting with others. Individuals who are resourceful and
flexible, on the other hand, are able to move easily from one position to another, perceiving an interaction from all three perspectives.
Mahatma Gandhi did this purposefully and systematically. Before he negotiated with the British Viceroy, Gandhi would go through various different perspectives: as himself, of course, and as
the Indian people. Then he would put himself into the persona of the Viceroy – people who knew Gandhi talked about how he would take the Viceroy’s posture, walking around for hours that way, to
really, really get the experience of being the Viceroy and know it. (When you do that you don’t always know, consciously, just what you’re learning or later, exactly how you’re using it.) Then he
would take the perspective of the world looking on. Then, after doing all that, he would go into the negotiation.
Studies of managers have described how upper level managers who are effective always demonstrate a fluid ability to assume all three positions, while lower managers or ineffective upper managers do not consistently show that skill. People in all roles, if they have that ability, are more flexible and effective, whatever they do.
– Connirae Andreas, teaching materials
Aligning Perceptual Positions
Connirae Andreas is one of the most admired and respected teachers and developers of NLP. In the late 80s she realized that the Perceptual Positions model didn’t seem to quite explain what was happening with herself and others. She began playing around with the idea that it wasn’t so much a question of which position you were in, but of sometimes being split between more than one position at the same time. For instance, she would be herself, seeing out of her own eyes, but there would be this voice outside of her, talking to her from Observer position. Or, trying to be the Observer, she would nevertheless be feeling some of her own – Self – emotions. Or she would have the feelings of the other person in her body.
Checking this out with many individuals, she found that these mixed up positions were quite common, creating difficulties in perspectives and relationships. She came to believe that we would all be much more flexible and resourceful if we could be aligned – fully and completely in one position at a time. Dr. Andreas began experimenting with this with a great many people, over several years, and found it vastly useful. Aligning ourselves in relationships – in interactions with others, can greatly enhance our resourcefulness, flexibility, our respect for ourselves and for others – becoming even more our true selves than we already are.
I use this process with my clients and with myself. One client was having arguments with his wife around at what point they should pick up their baby when she cried. Often he would lose his temper and curse – “Fuck you!” – at her. I helped him make some shifts as both Observer and Self and to step into his wife’s position as Other. At our next session he reported that he was able to discuss with her what to do, remaining calm and respectful while still engaged – even though they didn’t always agree – and in particular, not curse.
How to Do it
You can do this process with a guide or by yourself. Your guide should have some training or at least have experienced doing the process her- or himself (training in Aligning Perceptual Positions is typically during 3-day workshops in Core Transformation). If you are doing it by yourself, you should have at least gone through the process with a guide once or twice.
You start by gathering information, usually in Observer position. Perceptions are visual, kinesthetic (feelings, physical and emotional), and auditory, with auditory divided into what you hear from Self and Other, and your inner voices commenting on what is happening. You are looking to determine exactly how you are perceiving in each of the modalities:
Where are Self and Other located, relative to you as Observer? Is one closer? Are they balanced left and right?
Do you perceive them at eye-level to each other, and to you?
Are you seeing clearly, or not so clearly?
Are you seeing directly out of your eyes, or is your perspective even slightly off to the left or right, above or below, or behind or in front? (This may seem like a strange question, but significant changes can come from shifting this perspective. Many people have learned, in the course of growing up, to move their viewpoint away from their own physical eyes, perhaps in order to detach themselves in some way from the distressing realities they encounter.)
Are you hearing both Self and Other? Where are their voices coming from? Out of their mouths and throats, or elsewhere? (another question that may seem strange!)
Are you hearing from exactly in your ears, as Observer? Or is your listening point displaced?
Do you have an inner commentary voice or voices? What is it saying? Whose voice is it – yours or someone else’s?
What are your feelings? Are these feelings all yours, as Observer? Or do some of them belong to someone else? Where in your body are these feelings centered?
Where in your body is your center of gravity located?
After gathering information, you align your Observer position, moving Self and Other to be at equal distances, balanced left and right, and at eye level to each other and to you. You move your viewing point to be exactly in your own eyes, your listening point to be exactly from your physical ears, and the voices of Self and Other into their vocal areas. You adjust the language of your internal commentary voices to use “he” and “she” pronouns, and you send back any voices or feelings that don’t belong to you to whomever they belong to. Then you center your feelings and allow yourself to fill up with resourceful Observer feelings. You allow your center of gravity to be in the physical center of your body.
Gathering information about Self perceptions and then aligning Self is similar. There are only two parties here – Observer does not enter in.
For Other, you do not actually align; you step into being her or him only to gather data, to get a sense of what it’s like in their world, as a whole being, conscious and unconscious – in particular, how your Self looks and sounds to this other person, experiencing that “resonance” from the other side.
Then you go back to Observer, back to Self, to Other, and practice going from one to another, easily, fluidly, both with the original person and situation in which you did the alignment and in other interactions, so that these aligned positions and flowing among them becomes automatic, a powerful resource both for reevaluating the past and living resourcefully in the future.
Aligning Perceptual Positions Resources
- Aligning Perceptual Positions: A New Distinction in NLP by Connirae Andreas, Ph.D. and Tamara Andreas, MM
Transformation – The Full 3-Day Workshop on DVD: A 3-Day live workshop with Tamara Andreas including Aligning Perceptual Positions, Core Transformation, and Parental Timeline
Reimprinting. This includes a complete teaching on Aligning Perceptual Positions, and a demonstration with learning disabilities. Available from Real People Press
- Aligning Perceptual Positions: DVD, demonstration by Connirae Andreas. Available from NLP Comprehensive.
The Aligned Self: CD audio workshop. Four days advanced training with Connirae Andreas
including Aligning Perceptual Positions, Core Transformation, Parental Timeline Reimprinting, Eye Movement Integrator. Available from NLP Comprehensive.
Informed by and partially based on teaching materials by Connirae Andreas and Tamara Andreas. See also Heart of the Mind by Connirae and Steve Andreas, pp.