When I was in medical school at the University of Miami over 25 years ago, I attended a talk given by J.B. Spence, known for being the number one medical malpractice attorney in the state. He had won countless financial judgements against doctors, and made it clear in his speech that sometimes he would pursue a case even if the doctor had not made any mistakes. When his talk was over and he opened up the floor for questions, I raised my hand. “How do you do it?” I asked. “How do you win so many cases even when the fact of the matter is the doctor didn’t make any mistakes?” What he told me next has been an invaluable piece of advice I’ve taken with me since starting my own dermatology practice and expanding it to five locations throughout the Treasure Coast of Florida.
“You caught that, did you?” he said with a laugh. Further explaining, he said “I win cases because I’m likeable. In addition to that, when deciding whether to take a case I will factor in how likeable the doctor in question is. If a doctor has a reputation of being disagreeable, ornery, or just downright unpleasant I may take the case even if the basis for it is weak, because at the end of the day if your patients don’t like you and the jury doesn’t like you, I’m going to win money.”
He went on to recommend the seminal self-help book How to Win Friends and Influence People which I promptly picked up from the bookstore and read. The main thing I gained from both his talk and the book itself was the importance of being able to break out of having a singular perspective in life. In particular, it is paramount when dealing with patients to treat them with a warm and kind manner, and make them feel understood by seeing things from their point of view. In my practice I see hundreds of cases a year, and inevitably there is a very small percentage where things do not turn out exactly as desired. By establishing a good relationship with my patients from the outset in which they have not only trust in my abilities, but also in my ability to see things from their perspective, I have managed to stay malpractice-free.
Why should you look at things from a different perspective?
So why should you look at things from a different perspective? Look at it this way: a perspective is not right or wrong by default. It is simply the point of view of one person, based on the life experiences they have gained and the values they have put in place for themselves, their current state of mind, the assumptions they bring into a situation, and many other things. A classic example of this is the rabbit-duck optical illusion. From one person’s point of view, upon looking at the image for the first time they might see a duck, while another person will look at it and see a rabbit, and there are many different factors that potentially go into which image a person sees. For example, studies have shown that Americans are more likely to see a rabbit around the time of Easter, and a bird/duck in October.
The duck-rabbit optical illusion is a great way to illustrate how a person’s perspective is just as mutable. Even something as simple as standing on the other side of a room can completely change the way you see it. This idea also applies to social situations. Sometimes, two perspectives may be completely opposite, but both can still be valid — just in different ways, like the views from opposite sides of a room.
If you do not understand a person’s perspective, what is very meaningful and sensible to them may seem ridiculous to you. However, if you were going through the same situation, you may behave just as they did and perceive it as perfectly normal and the right thing to do. By learning to see things differently — from another person’s perspective — we may find our own perspective is not as valid as we thought, or at the very least that it isn’t the only valid one. Of course, you may still hold on to your perspective for good reasons, but you will be able to address the differences better because you understand the other perspective, and can have fewer strong disagreements and more constructive responses to contentious issues as a result.
Below are a few concrete steps that can be taken to flex your perception-seeking muscles.
Practice active listening
It may seem like a no-brainer, but practicing active listening is a skill that can improve your communication skills in all aspects, including your ability to shift your perception. By fully immersing yourself in someone else’s story or, you better experience a different point of view. To actively listen, make eye contact and focus on what the person is saying rather than thinking about how you’re going to respond to it. Just showing you are listening can often make people feel more understood, so ask questions about things you are unclear on and rephrase or echo what they are saying to assure them on the things you do comprehend. By learning to be a better listener, you can help yourself remain more open to other people’s perspectives.
Read fiction books
Exposing yourself to other people’s experiences help you develop empathy and gain insight into what it’s like to be another person, and one of the most effective ways to do it is by reading fiction. Studies have found that reading about something happening in literary fiction — more so than listening to a podcast or watching a movie — stimulates the same neurological regions of your brain as when you are actually experiencing it. This means that through reading fiction, you are able to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes because your brain believes it has. Reading fiction also improves “theory of mind” or a subset of empathy that involves the ability to attribute mental states such as beliefs, intents, desires, emotions, knowledge, to both yourself and others. All of these factors are also what becomes involved when someone is developing a perspective, so being able to identify them is critical to understanding where another person is coming from.
Truly get to know people
What you know about where people come from and how they came to be the people they are is imperative to being able to see things from their perspective. In my practice, I take the time to make sure each patient feels that they are more than just a series of boxes being ticked off on a chart, and try to get to know each of them personally. I also try to observe them and notice subtleties such as what they are doing, where they are looking, and what their body language is indicating. This works two-fold, as by getting to know them better I am able to start thinking more logistically about things like when is the right time to bring something up or how they will react if I phrase something a certain way, and they feel comfortable and begin to trust that I am only interested in what is best for them.