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The Overlapping of Self-Other: Creating Cooperation and Understanding

Mr. Spock called it a mind meld, his ability to harness the energies of others and hook up to their minds.  It turns out that this mind meld concept, referred to by TV series Star Trek writers, applies to more than intergalactic beings.

The year is 2011 and research states that human beings also have specialized abilities allowing for the transference of energy of other people to hook up with their minds! Really! According to research at Harvard’s Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience Lab, human beings have unique abilities to cooperate and “plug into information” in the head of another individual.  We are not referring to lobotomies here.  We are presenting this information to discuss the significance of perspective-taking and the important role it has as a basis for understanding another person or making sense of their actions.

This special quality of human behavior lies in our curiosity about and our innate need to understand how another person thinks. Because of this prevalent biological need to “connect,” humans are able to develop the most complex societies of all species. Why do we do it? Evidence demonstrates that humans have a fundamental need to belong. How do we do it? One strategy is to create synchrony between a psychological sense of, and feeling for, behavioral and mental connectedness. That desire for connectedness can become the glue that binds and bonds interpersonal relationships.  

When relating, we integrate cues from the environment with our cognitive processes and behaviors to provide for greater overlapping between mental representations of self and mental representations of others.  These cogs of representation rotate between, and among, our interactions and can increase our perspective-taking ability for self-other overlapping, understanding, and bonding.

Interpersonal conflict disrupts self-other overlapping and introduces negative, even threatening, perceptions that can affect behavioral, psychological, and physiological functioning.  Neuroscience has shown that when threatened, the higher functions of the brain shut down in preparation for a fight or flight response.  This response narrows our perspective and decreases the overlapping of the mental representations of self and other. Those cogs of representation can rotate among our interactions and introduce perspectives of isolation and exclusion, increasing self-defeating behaviors and physiological responses of anxiety, fear, and anger. 

As mediators and conflict coaches observing these downward spiraling representations, irrespective of intentional or unintentional motivations, how do we redirect those negative self-other interactions? Simply put, how can we create a conscious process to build cooperation and understanding, leading to more effective communication? Perhaps we can integrate perspective-taking with the Buddhist concept of mindfulness tocreate an underlying process that connects the role of self-other overlap and collectivism so the overlap is driven more by seeing the self in the other than by the other in the self.

Communicating from a mindful state is just one piece of the puzzle. Mindfulness is a state of active, open attention on the present. Some call this active listening, a key element in coaching as well as in mediation. To truly evoke cooperation and understanding from participants in a conflict situation, we can invoke our biological ability to “plug in” and combine it with the concept of mindfulness and perspective-taking. Becoming mindfully aware of context and perspective, we can implement these tools to adapt to changes in the environment and override habitual response patterns. Studies show that by taking the other’s perspective, walking in another’s shoes, so to speak, stereotypes can be broken down.  When we see the similarities between us we can expand this perspective-induced self-other overlap rather than broaden a bias chasm by focusing on our differences.

We can train ourselves to strengthen the use of perspective-taking and mindfulness. If we see ourselves as our own personal neuroscience experiments, we can exercise our perspective-taking in a mindful way and observe and note the results of our efforts. How? During a conversation, take the perspective of the other. Mindfully change just one aspect of your reaction and reframe your response. Observe the effect of this subtle change on your habitual reaction as well as the reaction of the other.  Process that information and note the change to the communication process as a whole.

When practicing perspective-taking we are, in essence, consciously expanding our self-other overlap and increasing opportunities to see the self in the other, leading to seeing the self in the other’s group.  By increasing our ability to take perspective, we can  develop a range of effective responses depending on the situation in which we find ourselves, and override habitual reactions. We can increase the overlap of self-other and tap into our uniquely human mind-melding abilities to build understanding and cooperation.

Try this for yourself and, as Mr. Spock would say, live long and prosper!


Rori Baron

Rori Baron, a skilled facilitator and certified leadership coach with over 16 years as a Human Resources executive, earned a bachelor's degree in Psychology from The University of Pennsylvania and a master's degree in speech/language pathology from the University of Maryland. With a reputation as a thought leader, combined with… MORE >


Steffi Berkowitz

Steffi Berkowitz, an award winning educator, national and international trainer and former school district ombudsman-mediator, earned  bachelor and master’s degrees in speech/language pathology and communication disorders from the University of Miami. Steffi earned a second master’s degree in dispute resolution from Pepperdine University School of Law-Straus Institute for Dispute Resolution. … MORE >

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