How to Walk a Mile in Someone Else’s Shoes

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You’ve probably heard the saying “Don’t judge someone until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes.” It’s a reminder that we can never know what it’s like to be that person: perhaps they’re struggling with problems which we’ve never seen, or never guessed at.

Other people’s behavior can be frustrating, irritating, and hard to understand. In many situations, though – whether in your professional or personal life – it’s hugely important to be able to empathize with others.

You can develop the ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes, to see a situation from their perspective. This has huge benefits for you: it could mean no more arguments with your spouse, or twice as many clients because you anticipate and deal with probable objections.

Here are a few tricks to use.

Writing
Give yourself time to do this thoughtfully – it might take an hour, but that could be the best hour you spend this month.

Whose behavior are you struggling to understand? Maybe it’s your teenage son. Maybe it’s those prospective clients who seem to need your product, but never buy it.

Here’s how to write your way tpo understanding someone:

    1. Day in the Life
      Write about a typical day in their life. You won’t know everything, but use your imagination. Add in emotions, too. How do they feel about their usual routine? Bored? Stifled? Stressed? 
  • Thoughts on a Situation
    Another way to use writing is to pick a specific situation (e.g. you want your teenage son to do his chores; you want your potential customer to buy something) – and write down the thoughts which you imagine going through that person’s head. 
  • Letter to You
    If someone is in conflict with you – perhaps you’re constantly having arguments or stonewalling one another – then try writing a letter from their perspective, to you. Again, you won’t know exactly what they’re thinking, but you can make sensible guesses. This can really help highlight aspects of your behavior which you might want to change. 

Work Shadowing
This won’t work for every person in your life, but if your problem is in the workplace, how about shadowing someone through their day? Perhaps you’re the manager of a team who just can’t seem to get their act together – they won’t follow simple instructions, and work often has to be redone.

By setting aside a few hours to spend just watching people go about their typical routine, you can learn a huge amount. Maybe the system for processing an order is far too complex. Perhaps staff have no idea of the impact of their actions further down the line – they can’t see the big picture.

If work shadowing isn’t practical, how about simply asking people to step you through their typical day? Pay close attention to the emotions which they describe.

Reading Similar Accounts
Whatever situation your colleague, friend or relative is going through, it’s a safe bet that someone else will have been through the same thing.

Perhaps you’ve discovered that one of your friends is an alcoholic, and it’s a huge shock. You can’t believe how she could put drinking above her family or her work. By reading accounts from recovering alcoholics, you can gain more insight.

Look for books or blogs on a particular topic, ideally written by people with personal experience of a similar situation. Even if you can never see yourself in your friend’s place, you’ll have a clearer idea of what his anorexia or her self-harm is about. You may find yourself feeling more sympathetic, and you’ll probably pick up some ideas for how best to talk to your friend when s/he is going through a difficult time.

Most of us empathize naturally with others, particularly when we see someone in pain or upset. Occasionally, though, we do need to do some extra work to conquer feelings of frustration or irritation at another person: and this can preserve friendships, solve workplace problems, and even make you a significant help in someone else’s life.

What are your own tips for empathizing more fully?

Written on 7/14/2010 by Ali Hale. Ali writes a blog, Aliventures, about leading a productive and purposeful life (get the RSS feed here). As well as blogging, she writes fiction, and is studying for an MA in Creative Writing. Photo Credit: photos8.com
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