Introducing Perceptual Positions - How to Improve Your Communication Skills at Work


Perceptual positions are one of the most useful NLP (Neuro-Linguistic Programming) techniques for when you’re trying to figure out how to improve your communication skills by getting a different perspective. And, you’ll be pleased to know that it’s not nearly as complicated as it might first sound!


Have you ever had a disagreement with someone, experienced all the emotions and frustrations of that person not coming round to your point of view, only to later have another friend shed light on that person’s perspective? 


You discover that they’re going through a personal challenge, or have experienced some form of struggle in their past, and, suddenly, it all makes sense. You can see what was holding them back. And you realise how you could’ve handled the situation differently…


That situation has happened to most of us. And it’s a perfect example of how perceptual positions can transform the way we communicate. Because when you’re able to understand other people’s points of view, you’re able to connect with them in a whole new way.


What are perceptual positions?

Perceptual positioning means stepping outside of yourself to look at a situation from different points of view. There are three different perceptual positions that you can take:

  1. First position (self) = your position
  2. Second position (other) = the position of the other person that you’re communicating with e.g. a colleague, customer or family member
  3. Third position (observer) = the position of the observer, who is witnessing the conversation that’s taking place

The concept of perceptual positions stems from the research of anthropologist Gregory Bateson, who said “Wisdom comes from multiple perspectives”. 

What he meant by this is that approaching a situation from different perspectives enables you to see all the sides of the story. You can tweak your communication style to incorporate different points of view and present your message in a way that’ll resonate the most with your intended audience.

Since Gregory Bateson made that statement, perceptual positioning has been developed by NLP researchers into a fully-fledged practical method for us all to use to improve our communication skills.

How to practice using perceptual positions with an NLP exercise

As a certified NLP coach, this is an exercise that I love to work on with my clients! The easiest way to start using perceptual positions in your daily life is to practice with a physical NLP exercise.


Cast your mind back to a recent conflict or communication issue that you experienced. It doesn’t need to be anything overly serious. 

Using that memory, work through the following exercise:

  1. Get three pieces of paper and write “me” or “self” on one, “them” or “other” on the second and “observer” on the third
  2. Place each piece of paper on a chair and arrange those chairs in a triangle
  3. Start by sitting on the chair that’s labelled “me” or “self” - this is the first position
    1. See the situation through your own eyes
    2. What are you thinking?
    3. Observe what past events and experiences might be leading you to think this way
    4. What does it look like, sound like and feel like from your perspective?
  4. Now, take your shoes off and imagine that you’re stepping into the shoes of the other person. Sit on the chair labelled “them” or “other” - this is the second position
    1. See the situation through their eyes
    2. What are they thinking?
    3. Imagine what they feel to be true about this situation
    4. What does it look like, sound like and feel like from their perspective?
  5. Finally, move into the position of the observer. If you can, carefully stand on the chair labelled “observer” to mimic the view of an observer, like a fly on the wall - this is the third position
    1. What do you observe about the relationship between these two people?
    2. What new perspective do you get here?
    3. What do the two positions have in common? Pay attention to their communication and their non-verbal behaviour
    4. What advice can you give them from your objective position? 

When you’ve stepped into all three positions, return to your starting point and put your own shoes back on. You’re now back in your own position. What have you learnt from this journey? How can you use these learnings to approach this situation more effectively?

The more you practice this, the better you’ll get at using perceptual positions in your daily communication. Eventually, you’ll be able to move into these positions in your mind rather than always following your interactions with the physical exercise. You can use this exercise either after something has occurred, like a conflict, or in advance of an event, such as a presentation, to allow you to gain different perspectives prior to presenting.


How to improve communication skills with perceptual positions

Using perceptual positions to improve communication in business

If there’s one place where we’ve all experienced some form of communication issue, it’s in customer service. If you’re a busy business owner, customer service issues can be detrimental to the reputation of your business. Even when they’re not your fault.


What makes customer service issues so tricky? Usually, it’s that the customer can only see their point of view. 


So, make things easier for them and come round to that point of view. Step into your customer’s shoes through the second position (“other”) and consider:

  • Why are they experiencing this frustration?
  • What wider impact does it have on their life?
  • What other experiences could be worsening this situation for them?
  • What solution do they need?


By positioning yourself to see the situation from the customer’s viewpoint, it’s going to be much easier to help them to see the whole picture. Perhaps the reason they’re frustrated is that you’re out of stock, or a project was delayed due to factors totally out of your control.


They’ll likely be far more receptive to your side of the story after you’ve presented them with a solution. Take back control of the situation first and then bring them over to your side with perceptual positioning. 


Using perceptual positions to strengthen marketing messages

Another way to use perceptual positions is when creating your marketing messages. Why? Well, perceptual positioning enables you to step into the shoes of your ideal customer (remember, you don’t need to use every perceptual position every single time!). This method is a favourite amongst my coaching clients.


You can explore what their needs are, what they’re currently feeling and what’s holding them back. Then, you can use that information to refine your marketing message and communicate in the most effective and impactful way.


Using perceptual positions to bolster public speaking skills

If you’ve got a big presentation coming up, perceptual positioning is about to become your new best friend. Again, you can use the second position (other) here and step into the shoes of the audience attending your speaking event. Get ready to present with confidence!


Use perceptual positioning to ask yourself:

  • What are they looking to learn?
  • What misconceptions might they have around this topic?
  • How does this topic make them feel?
  • How do they want to move forward and use the information from this presentation in their daily lives?


Using perceptual positions to handle difficult conversations

Then, of course, there’s probably the most popular use of perceptual positions - in handling difficult conversations. Perceptual positions can be especially useful in professional settings when you really don’t want to lose your cool!


By working your way through all three positions - your own, your colleague’s and the observer’s - you’re able to see the conversation from every angle possible. 


You can start to understand where you’re coming from, where your colleague or customer is coming from, and how this conversation might look to an observer with no emotional involvement in the situation.


As you work your way around the three positions, you’ll gradually be able to understand everyone else’s point of view, and will be able to determine the most appropriate way to bring the conversation around to your intended conclusion. 


Why does perceptual positioning work?

Perceptual positioning enables you to improve your communication skills because:

  • It allows you to communicate without overreacting to your current emotions
  • It enables you to remove yourself from past experiences, instead turning them into powerful lessons as you start to understand how they’re influencing your point of view
  • It gives you new insights into other people’s points of view
  • It helps you to open your mind to new possibilities
  • It enables you to step into the role of the observer and see the issue without emotional attachment


By now, you should have a good understanding of what perceptual positions are and how you can use NLP to improve your communication skills. 


The more you practice, the easier it will get. You’ll notice knock-on effects in all areas of your life, whether that’s in leadership, your career trajectory or even your family life at home.


Bring perceptual positioning into your workplace

Help your team communicate better with corporate coaching: