On a recent archaeological dig in Man Bac in what is now northern Vietnam, a team of researchers made a remarkable discovery. While unearthing the remains of some Stone Age people who were buried 4,000 years ago, they discovered one young man who had been placed in his grave differently from the others: he was curled in the fetal position.
It turned out he was laid to rest as he lived. Further examination showed that this man suffered from a rare congenital disease that fused the vertebrae of his spine. It would have left him paralyzed from the waist down from the time he was a small child.
Yet the scientists concluded that this young man lived a good ten years past his adolescence. That means that for years, perhaps decades, others had to care for him, feed him, keep him clean, and keep him safe from danger.
Why is this significant? Because this young man’s life and death show us the essence of what it means to ‘walk in someone else’s shoes.’ This profoundly disabled young man lived into his 20s only because others in his little tribe had empathy for him: they imagined what it might be like to be him, they chose to feel his pain, and they chose to experience the difficulty of his life.
And then they chose to care for him since he couldn’t care for himself.
That is walking in someone else’s shoes. That is the beating heart of empathy.
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What Do We Mean By Walking in Another Person’s Shoes?
To walk in someone else’s shoes is to make an effort to grasp their point of view emotionally.
‘Empathy‘ is the ability to recognize and understand the feelings and thoughts of another person.
Perhaps most importantly, walking in another person’s shoes is the ability to not only see the world from their perspective but to feel it as if you were them.
The Ability To Walk In Someone Else’s Shoes
Sadly, empathy isn’t taught very well in our schools and workplaces. This is strange given that developing empathy has always been recognized as an important part of human development.
Throughout our lives, we learn many skills that are drilled into us through regular tests, projects, and repetition. But in my experience, I’ve found that it isn’t always the formal skills – the ones like math, history, and physics – that are the most important.
Formal Skills vs. Informal Skills
After going through 21 years of education and now 15 years of work experience, I have learned that while the skills taught in formal education are important, the most crucial skills I have used to succeed in my career and life were never taught to me in an educational setting.
Like most people, I was not even aware that there were other skills that I needed in order to succeed. As many of us do, I was running blind without even knowing that this blind spot was hampering my growth and success. I’ve since learned that there are a few vital informal skills that we can develop, skills that put a powerful compass in our hands to help us navigate the difficult seas of the modern workplace – and life in general.
Vital Informal Skills
- Emotional Intelligence
- Learning to have difficult conversations
- Understanding cognitive biases
- Using mental models
- And the topic of this article, empathy – the ability to walk in another person’s shoes.
Why Are These Skills So Important?
Of course, having the kinds of skills we learn in school and later in the workplace are important. However, knowing how to actually achieve your goals while working together with multiple people within your company is a different matter altogether.
A lack of empathy not only hampers our ability to be productive in the workplace, but it is also foundational to rational decision-making, building lasting relationships, and distinguishing between right and wrong.
Without empathy, that one particular, critical skill in your tool kit – one that often doesn’t appear on a CV – you are likely to face an uphill battle in anything you’re trying to accomplish.
“When you show deep empathy toward others, their defensive energy goes down, and positive energy replaces it. That’s when you can get more creative in solving problems.”
– Stephen Covey
I Hear You, I See You, I Feel You.
To walk in another person’s shoes is to shift perspective, and to see and feel the world as another sees and feels it. The word feel in the previous statement is very important, important enough that we must take a closer look at it.
What I mean by feeling as another person is that you must learn to not only see things intellectually from someone else’s point of view but also to feel the same emotions that the other person feels. This might mean feeling scared, tearful, or elated depending on the situation, and understanding on a profound level what has made the other person feel this way.
Researchers have found that when we feel another person suffering, it activates not only the visual cortex in the brain but also our emotions and physical sensory receptors. Imagine witnessing someone get a paper cut: you not only sympathize with their pain, but you might also wince, or draw your own hand back involuntarily. You can almost feel the slice happening to you.
Developing and nurturing these empathetic abilities rather than shying away from them is like a secret weapon when it comes to working with other people. It’s a foundational component of what made us human in the first place – just ask our Stone Age friend from Man Bac in Vietnam.
So what is it that prevents us from fully understanding what another person is feeling? Why can’t we listen deeply?
That’s because we’ve already filtered it out.
Listening Filters, Empathy and Your Truth
Empathy has deep roots in our evolution as a species. Developmental psychologists say that empathetic behaviors like altruistic helping and comforting others who appear to be in distress emerge in children as young as 12 months! Thus, empathy is built into who and what we are.
However, as we get older, it becomes more and more difficult for us to be empathetic with others.
All of us see the world differently based on our listening filters. We select what to pay attention to and what to ignore, often subconsciously, based on our particular set of experiences and knowledge. Our parents, friends, culture, values, beliefs, expectations, moods, and prejudices all combine to form such filters. These filters help each one of us create our own perceived reality and affect every decision we make.
The important thing to realize here is that the “truth” we form by the above process is only “our” truth and not the absolute truth. Throughout any interaction, understanding that others’ perceptions of the world are equally valid as ours is key to gaining any level of understanding with them.
Everyone has a right to form their own perception based on how they experience the world around them. Indeed, if you stop and think about our listening filters, we quickly realize that it would be literally impossible for two people to share the same “truth” in the deepest sense.
Once we understand that our apparent “truth” is only a perspective, it allows us to view the same situation differently and accommodate someone else’s point of view. This is the foundation of empathy and is of immeasurable help in resolving conflicts.
“Physics isn’t the most important thing. Love is.”
― Richard P. Feynman
Perspective and Conflict
Conflicts don’t occur because of different perceptions, not exactly. Rather, conflicts occur because of our inability to step outside of our own perspective and acknowledge the other person’s point of view. If you can’t take a moment to walk in another person’s shoes, how on earth are you going to reach any kind of accord or understanding with them?
And this is why I believe that seeing and understanding different points of view is a superpower for those who possess it. Friction should be between points of view, not between people, and certainly not between organizations and nations. Empathy allows us to escape unnecessary stress from friction in relationships.
President John F. Kennedy famously brought in advisers from profoundly different backgrounds and political persuasions in order to guarantee he would get the widest possible variety of perspectives. After a pair of advisers went on a fact-finding mission to Vietnam in the early years of the conflict there and came back with wildly differing tales of what the conditions were like on the ground, Kennedy famously quipped, “You both went to the same country?”
When it comes to our own lives, it’s vital to remember that we can all be in the same country, even standing in the same room, but nonetheless perceive our surroundings in profoundly different ways.
Celebrating Difference, Loving Friction
Every great human accomplishment has come out of differing opinions and the energy generated by healthy friction. Seeing things from different perspectives can allow us to create something better than anyone could on their own.
Taking the time to step into the other person’s shoes is the very necessary first step we must take to engage in productive conversations, iron out our differences without making things personal, and reach a win-win solution/agreement. To not do so out of defensiveness or fear is to invite unnecessary conflict and misunderstanding.
How to Build Empathy
Like any skill, empathy can be learned and it gets better over time with practice. Here is how you can do so:-
- Pay Attention – Be fully present without distractions when in the company of others.
- Active Listening – Stop thinking about what you’re going to say next and just take in what the other person is saying.
- Don’t Interrupt – Even with the best intentions, saying things like, ‘It’ll get better,’ or ‘It’s not that bad’ diminish the other person’s problems and may cause them to shut down. Avoid doing that.
- Make It About them, Not You – Resist the urge to speak. Use filler words like “umm”, “and”, and “tell me more” to hear them out fully before speaking.
- Be Open and Vulnerable – Empathy is a two-way street. We make these connections by sharing our own vulnerabilities and struggles. Don’t be afraid to open up.
You Can Be Right and Still Be Wrong.
In the end, we must ask ourselves this question – Do we want to be right, or effective?
And this is the question that can be answered by seeing things from another’s point of view.
Do we want to be right and prove others wrong and secure a personal victory?
Or is it more important to be effective in dealing with the topic at hand, even with the different points of view we might have?
Once we learn to choose the latter, we can take meaningful steps towards reaching solutions and agreements that are more positive and inclusive than any individual point of view. Developing the ability to empathize and to approach life from this perspective will result in consistently better results for not only you but for everyone around you.
Now that’s what I call a real superpower.