One of the primary ways we understand another person is through taking their perspective, imagining what they are thinking and feeling about their experiences. To understand their psychological point of view, we use information about ourselves. This includes placing ourselves imaginatively into the other person’s situation (“How would I feel if that was me?”) and relating what they are going through to similar situations we have experienced (“I’ve been there”).

Having similar past experiences – such as relationship breakdowns, work conflicts, and loss of loved ones – to a person whom we are trying to understand makes it easier to take their perspective and increases compassion and concern. However, less clear is what types of self-reflection are most beneficial for understanding our and others’ experiences.

It is important to consider a person’s motives for reflecting on their thoughts, feelings, past experiences, and behaviours. Introspection driven by defensive or anxious reasons (e.g., loss, relationship problems) is quite different to more curiosity-driven reasons for turning attention inward. Indeed, the first type of self-reflection – rumination – is associated with anxiety, depression, and negative affect; as well as the Big Five personality trait neuroticism. By contrast, curious reflection is associated with enjoyment of effortful thinking and the Big Five trait of openness to experience.

Rumination inhibits a person’s ability to shift focus from their own experiences to those of others. Indeed, people who regularly ruminate about experiences are less likely to consider other peoples’ points of view and experience significant distress when encountering others’ misfortunes. By contrast, those who regularly engage in curious reflection are apt to consider both their own and others’ experiences.

It is reasonable to play negative experiences over and over in one’s mind. However, to understand and formulate solutions to problematic situations, we need to move from rumination to insight into those experiences.

Insight involves working through experiences, developing an accurate understanding of what occurred, and incorporating this learning into how we see ourselves and the world.

Psychological research suggests that taking a self-distanced perspective – almost as if watching events happening to another person – when thinking about past experiences fosters insight and closure.

Surprisingly, there is no direct research on whether taking a self-distanced perspective to one’s experiences improves understanding of another person in a similar situation. However, self-compassion is related to perspective taking and helpful relationship behaviours. Self-compassion allows us to view our experiences and failings as part of a “bigger picture”, which is similar to taking a self-distanced approach to our experiences.

This blog post is based on the author’s paper, I Think, You Think’: Understanding the Importance of Self-Reflection to the Taking of Another Person’s Perspective, published in Journal of Relationships Research. The article is freely accessible until August 31, 2017.

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