How to Move Forward by Stepping Back

Posted by Eily | May 2, 2013 3:00:38 AM

By Steve Martin, CMCTIAW

Today’s increasingly complex business world can serve up some pretty challenging situations that even the most seasoned of us will find difficult to navigate through. Thankfully though, there’s often a colleague, co-worker or friend who will be happy to pass on the benefit of their wisdom to help you deal with that difficult decision or knotty issue.

And while advice like “Why not sleep on it?” or “You should take a step back and view the issue from afar” certainly won’t be lacking in good intentions, it might sometimes be lacking a deeper understanding given that their appreciation of your situation will often be informed by nothing more than a quick and detached glance. But before completely dismissing their counsel it might be worth considering some new evidence supporting the benefits of consciously creating some physical distance from a problem at hand.

Perhaps even more interestingly, the insights from these studies are not only instructive when it comes to helping you to solve problems or make decisions. Especially during the early stages of making a business proposal or a sales presentation, asking potential customers and clients to take a step back before they consider your products and services could actually make it easier for them to do business with you.

Researchers Manoj Thomas and Claire Tsai, from Cornell University and Rotman University respectively, thought that the physical distance between a person and an actual challenge or problem that they faced could influence their perception of how easy or difficult overcoming that challenge or problem might actually be. In one series of experiments designed to test how distance affects perceptions of how difficult or easy a task is, study participants were asked to read aloud a series of words that appeared randomly on a computer screen. Some of the words that appeared on the screens were (orthographically irregular non-words) made up and difficult to pronounce words. At other times, participants were asked to read aloud words that were simple and easy to pronounce. Additionally, each time one of the difficult-to-pronounce words appeared on the screen half the participants were randomly assigned to lean towards the screen in order to reduce the distance between themselves and the difficult-to-pronounce words while the other half were asked to lean back from the screen, thereby creating a greater distance.

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Finally after reading each word, study participants were asked to rate how difficult they found that word to pronounce.

The results showed that when it came to the difficult words, those who were asked to lean back in their chairs to create a greater physical distance between themselves and the screen reported that they found the task to be easier compared to those who were asked to move towards the screen. In short the experiment neatly demonstrated that when a task appears tricky, making a small change by taking a step back and viewing that task from a distance can prove to be useful in reducing the perception of a task’s difficulty.

But what would happen if instead of asking people to report how difficult (or easy) it was to articulate a word, they were instead asked to report how difficult (or easy) it was for them to purchase a product?

To answer this question the researchers conducted another series of studies. This time participants choose from a range of electronic products including cameras and computers. For each product, participants were given a choice of evaluating their liking for the product immediately and subsequently making a purchase there and then, or they could defer their decision until later. To add an element of real life to the situation, the choices that people were given were made harder by making the product comparisons difficult to evaluate. Additionally, it was also made clear that no obvious cost benefit marked one product out as any more attractive than another.

iStock_000005655901MediumConsistent with the word pronunciation tests, the results clearly showed that those who were told to take a step back and compare the products from a distance found the evaluation task easier. And as a result they were significantly less likely to delay their purchasing decision compared to those who were asked to move closer. A small single change, brought about by increasing the physical distance from which a choice was viewed, had a significant influence over that choice. Put simply a complex product choice does seem to get a little easier when viewed from a greater distance.

The findings from these two sets of experiments suggest a couple of small, but potentially important, changes that would be worth considering when influencing the decisions of others. Imagine for a few moments that you are with a relatively new client and that the solution your organization is offering is a relatively complex one. These studies suggest that arranging for a small change in the distance from which your proposal will be seen could turn out to be a pretty persuasive thing to do. Accordingly, it will be important not only to carefully consider what will make up the content of your presentation, but also to pay close attention to the distance from which your content will be viewed. This might mean that instead of presenting directly from your laptop where the client may need to get much closer to the screen, it might be wiser to arrange for your presentation to be projected against a bigger screen, farther away, even if you are presenting to an audience of one.

In a related example, retail and sales staff who demonstrate products as part of a sales process might wish to consider the physical distance between themselves and their customer, choosing to retreat slightly especially at points when they are introducing relatively complex or new technical product features to non-expert customers.

All in all, these studies go some way to explaining how small changes in physical distance can go some way to making your influence attempts more productive.

They might also provide an explanation as to why, when agonizing over a knotty problem in the office, it is that smug colleague who looks over your shoulder at your screen from a distance, who always seems to believe they can get to the answer quicker than you.



Thomas, M., & Tsai, C. (2012). Psychological Distance and Subjective Experience: How Distancing Reduces the Feeling of Difficulty. Journal of Consumer Research, 39(2), 324-340.



Topics: Inside Influence Report