Taking Perspective Before Taking Action

One of the signs of passing youth is the birth of a sense of fellowship with other human beings as we take our place among them. ~ Virginia Woolf

What is maturity and how do we achieve it? People have always been arguing about this; there is no universal answer. But my favourite definition – maturity is when we move from being self-centred to being world-centred, when we realise everyone has different perspectives, opinions, and values.

Mature action is something I’ve always struggled with. I’ve been living a very secluded lifestyle for the past three years, and I’m now slowly re-entering the world. While I used to live very childishly and selfishly, this time, I am doing my best to live as maturely and compassionately as I can.

This can be hard, especially in difficult or new situations, or when strong emotions are involved. Often, we do not have the luxury of time or the wisdom of a mentor. And so that question always paralysed me – what is the best way to behave or to respond?

Recently, I came across the AQAL (All Quadrants All Levels) framework, pioneered by Ken Wilber and his colleagues. While it is much richer and complex than what I am going to describe, I found it a very effective answer to my question.

The Four Quadrants

Wilber describes the framework as the four quadrants of a circle. Imagine a circle, neatly divided into four slices. Each slice is described as Individual or Collective, and Internal or External.

These make up the four possible combinations:

  • Interior Individual, the I – What do I think, feel, or value about _____?
  • Exterior Individual, the IT – What actions do I take?
  • Collective Interior, the WE – How can I take into consideration the greatest amount of people at the deepest levels?
  • Collective Exterior, the ITS – How do the larger systems I live in affect my choices? How will my choices affect these systems?

The above quadrants and questions were taken from the book, Integral Life Practice; the following are my own contributions.

A Small Example

The beauty of this framework is that it can be applied to anything, from making a phone call, to a business decision, to relationships and marriage, to global warfare. However, let’s look at a small, mundane example here. I have always found it better to use everyday examples as some readers tend to get “locked in” by the bigger ones, or focus more on the content of the example than applying the framework to their own situations.

I have a close friend I have known for most of my life, although in recent years we have drifted apart with work and family life. A few months ago, I tried to rekindle the friendship with a few phone calls, as well as sending him a small gift for his birthday. He ignored most of my phone calls, picking up only one or two and sounding distant and cold. Neither did I get a phone call or note of thanks after I passed my gift to his roommate, a mutual friend. This left me confused and angry – my initial reaction was to decide to be cold and stony if I ever did see him again.

The Quad Scan

As you would expect, this isn’t a very mature or compassionate response. I decided to do what Wilber called a “Quad Scan”, that is, run the event through the AQAL framework. We do this by considering the four quadrants in turn, honouring each one before looking at the whole.

  • I – I feel angry and confused. My values tell me that a “thank you” phone call would be nice.
  • WE – Taking into consideration his side of the story, he might have just been really tired, or too busy to call back. Maybe his phone was broken and he never saw most of my calls. Perhaps I had done something to anger him, and to his values, ignoring me was more respectful than shouting at me.
  • IT – My first reaction was to be cold and stony if I ever saw him again. But that clashes with my values and goals. What creative action could I take? After considering the WE, I might send him a letter and try to find out what is really happening. This is far more productive than returning silence with silence, which achieves practically nothing.
  • ITS – Perhaps in his family and culture, a “thank you” phone call was unneeded for friends he had known since his childhood. Or we can look at the ITS from a different angle. What about karma? If I had been cold or rude to him next time, what would the impact be on myself, or on the world? I believe even the smallest acts have an unseen influence on the larger world. Is it still a good idea to be cold to him if I see him?

As you can see, before doing the Quad Scan, I had only considered the “I”, and my planned reaction was selfish. Taking a couple of minutes in this way changed the way I looked at things, allowing more appropriate actions.

Further, there were other bonuses I got from it. For example, I realised that – at many times in my past – I had done exactly what he did. Realising how hurtful it was, I resolved not to do it again.

This incident is relatively minor and only took a few minutes, but if we want to apply this to a bigger situation – a business decision, ending or starting a romance – we can really spend a lot of time and flesh out each quadrant fully. The insights we get can be surprising. (On the other hand, a Quad Scan can also take seconds to run – vital for those ‘on-the-spot’ decisions.)

Why not take a few minutes and run a Quad Scan on one of your life events now?

Interior and Exterior

In conclusion, one final point – we have to remember to honour all four quadrants. It is easy to start denying or ignoring one of these quadrants, often unknowingly.

For example, if we are feeling angry at someone, the Quad Scan might help us see that acting in a polite or compassionate way is the best response. This does not mean we repress or deny our anger, however, which is quite common amongst people who try to “control themselves”. This only causes the anger to come pouring out in the future. I find it helpful to honour our negative emotions – not just anger – by welcoming and feeling them fully, and then acting from that clearer space.

Sometimes we go in the other direction, letting our feelings and urges determine everything we do. What would happen if we decided to skip work every time we don’t feel like going?

I would love to hear your thoughts and experiences with this approach!