Listening and the Three Mountain Tasks
By Andrew Downing
Leaders listen to understand the point of view of others. It’s egocentric to have any other goal. Join Andrew as he examines egocentrism and Jean Piaget’s famous social experiment “Three Mountains Task”.
Jean Piaget is a famous psychologist known for his work in child development. He theorized that young children are egocentric until around 6 or 7 years of age. This means that they are not able to understand another person’s perspective. Piaget tested this theory using his “Three Mountains Task,” where a child would sit at a table looking at a model of three mountains. At the same time Piaget would sit on the other side of the table, with a different view of the mountains. He would then ask the child to describe what Piaget could see from his point of view. He found that the youngest children did not have the ability to picture the mountains from any perspective other than their own.
Researchers eventually found better methods to test egocentrism in children, but the concept of the Three Mountains Task can be used as a great metaphor for listening. As aspiring leaders, we have to understand what others see. You don’t want to have the mindset of a young child. Listening is about stepping out of our own perspective and seeing the other person’s point of view. Whether it’s someone coming to you about a problem, expressing an idea, or telling you about their lives, the concept is the same. They want you to understand where they are coming from and what they’re feeling.
Listening is a fundamental leadership skill, and it’s something that everyone can improve. It requires mindfulness, focus, patience, and lots of practice. The skill may not come naturally, but when it clicks and you are actively listening, it lets others know that you value and respect them. This is where empathy, compassion, and kindness begin – because it’s difficult to ignore someone’s pain when you understand what they are feeling. In The Servant, James Hunter writes, “The work of active listening takes place up in your head. Active listening requires a disciplined effort to silence all that internal conversation while we’re attempting to listen to another human being. It requires a sacrifice, an extension of ourselves, to block out the noise and truly enter another person’s world—even for a few minutes. Active listening is attempting to see things as the speaker feels them. This identification with the speaker is referred to as empathy and requires a great deal of effort.” It’s about understanding where the other person is coming from and how they truly feel. This shows that you value them and value their experiences.
Many leaders have trouble with this because they are too egocentric. Instead of trying to understand the point of view from the other side of the “three mountains,” they are too busy talking about what they see from their side of the table. Instead of conversing to reach a consensus, leaders must listen to empathize and come to an understanding. Try to start from the other person’s point of view and really dive deep into where they are coming from. There’s a reason they feel the way they do. And as an active listener it is your job to understand those reasons.
In the end, conversation is about connection and accepting each other for who we are. When we listen, we are valuing the other person; we are showing them that their feelings matter. Leaders need to value their teammates for who they are, which includes their perspectives, their unique experiences, and their ideas. Too often our egocentric mindset makes us insert our own thoughts and talk about our side of the three mountains. But inserting our opinion diminishes what the other person is saying. It’s the opposite of empathy. When this happens we need to take a step back, listen, and use more compassion.
The best leaders want to know…What’s on the other side of the Three Mountains?