Creating distance to get close

How to prompt students to shift focus so that they can learn from an experience

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Experiences are all about the moment. We focus on the experience as it unfolds, zooming in on what is happening to us. But, rather counterintuitively, to learn from an experience, we also have to create distance.

That ability to create distance between ourselves and the experience is powerful. It helps us move past our own point of view, put aside how we feel in the moment, and put the experience into context. Our capacity to generalize about an experience is key to extracting meaning, allowing us to understand the underlying principles and key lessons so that we can use those lessons in other contexts.

But self-distancing can be difficult. We tend to think about what happened from our own perspective and fail to focus on the key lessons of an experience. Viewing ourselves from afar takes effort. Researchers, however, have come up with a variety of simple, powerful techniques for prompting self-distancing: linguistic hacks, thinking about the future, and putting yourself in someone else’s shoes.

Linguistic hacks for creating distance include reflection from a third-person perspective and naming yourself.[1] Writing from a third-person perspective or taking a distanced approach as you recount a story, helps create distance between yourself and the event. Similarly, writing about what happened and using your name gives you a broader perspective.

To use this method in the classroom, you can change your prompt from the typical “write about what happened in the simulation” to “write about what happened in the simulation from a third-person perspective” prompting students to distance themselves from the experience.[2]

Thinking about the future can help shift focus from the present by focusing on the future. That focus promotes abstraction and self-distancing because the learner hasn’t yet experienced the events they are imagining.

To use this method in the classroom, you can change your prompt from the typical “write about what happened in the simulation” to “write about what you think might happen next in the simulation.”

Putting yourself in someone else’s shoes helps move us away from an egocentric view of the world, one that is natural for everyone but can hurt our ability to make sense of an experience. This technique helps us see an experience or a situation from another person’s perspective.

To use this method in the classroom, you can change your prompt from the typical “write about what happened in the simulation” to “write about what happened in the simulation from the perspective of a teammate or the perspective of a character in the game.”

To help students self-distance and understand key lessons, we suggest:

  • Using linguistic hacks to prompt students to broaden their thinking, including writing from a third-person perspective
  • Weaving in future-orientated questions throughout your course so that students have a chance to think about their experiences and simulate future scenarios
  • Asking students to write about an event or experience from someone else’s perspective
SHIFTING FOCUS

The following is a series of assignments to help students self-distance

Ask learners to describe what happened in a simulation in the third person.

Describe what happened in the simulation using the 3rd person point of view. For instance, instead of writing about how “I felt” write as if you were a fly on the wall watching yourself and describe what happened in the game.

Ask learners to explain what happened from another team members’ point of view.

Put yourself in another team members’ shoes. What did they experience on your team? Explain what happened in the simulation from that team members’ point of view.

Ask learners to imagine a future scenario and write out the steps they would need to get to that future state.

Take a minute to think about the future of the game and your expectations of what your team will do over the remainder of the game. Based on your thinking, what are the most important factors for success in the game?

Footnotes

  1. [1]

    For more on the value of reflection from the 3rd person perspective see: Grossmann, I., Dorfman, A., Oakes, H., Santos, H. C., Vohs, K. D., & Scholer, A. (2019). Training for Wisdom: The Distanced Self-Reflection Diary Method.

  2. [2]

    This exercise was inspired by Ethan Kross's Chatter: The Voice in Our Head and How to Harness It. 2021. Random House.