Putting ourselves in someone else’s shoes is not always easy…
When my previous partner died, I remember a work colleague saying to me that he understood how I felt because his father-in-law had died the previous year.
In my grief I remember that statement feeling like a sharp sting.
How could he even think of comparing his situation with mine? How could he possibly say he understood?
Now I realise that there is no hierarchy in grief or pain. We each feel it in the way that we feel it. And although I’m pretty sure the colleague in my example hadn’t actually thought about how I was feeling, that encounter taught me not to judge. After all, how did I know what his father-in-law’s death meant to him?
With so much pain in the world, we need more empathy. Hundreds of millions of people are battling with entrenched inequalities based on their skin colour; millions of people are feeling lonely and socially isolated; millions more face daily discrimination on account of being ‘different’ to the prevailing ‘norm’ or narrative; millions are hungry, many starving.
We each need to think about what it’s like walking in someone else’s shoes. The dictionary describes empathy as the psychological identification with – or the vicarious experiencing of – the feelings, thoughts or attitudes of another. Empathy requires us to be willing to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes and try to understand.
People are coming together now to challenge injustice and fight for a better world. Many have been doing that for years. The Black Lives Matter movement; community initiatives for the most vulnerable; campaigns to raise awareness of inequalities, cruelty and injustices – and many more. Thousands of charities, large and small, are also working to educate and to make things better in myriad different ways.
I have a lot to learn about myself – and there are, I’m sure, many things I have yet to recognise and learn about the way I am in the world, the way I think and the things I do.
Over the years I have, though, identified three important building blocks of empathy and understanding:
1. We can use our imagination
We cannot know exactly how someone else is feeling, but we can imagine.
After both of my parents died I went through the Grief Recovery Method – a practical programme for moving beyond loss. I found it very powerful.
One of the most important things I learned was in relation to other people’s loss: If I assume I know how someone is feeling, I might say “You must be feeling terrible.” But it’s not for me to assume how they ‘must’ be feeling.
A better things to say is, “I imagine you’re feeling terrible.” In this second statement, I have to do some work – I have to use my imagination and at least try to put myself in the other person’s shoes, even if I can’t know exactly what that’s like.
By using the words “I imagine…” it shows the other person that I am making an effort to think about how they might be feeling. “I imagine it’s a frightening time for you…” “I imagine it feels like a rollercoaster right now…” “I imagine…”
2. We can spend time in new places and new situations
In all my years of travelling, the most important thing I’ve learned is that by stepping outside our own individual day-to-day lives and into different situations, our eyes and minds can be opened to the needs and the views of others in the world.
If we don’t do that, our viewpoints can become stagnant, ingrained and hard to shift. We become less flexible in our beliefs.
Our own way of seeing things is just one way, and yet there’s a whole world of different viewpoints and ways of thinking – about pretty much everything. By stepping outside our own ‘norm’ we become more self-aware and, if we have open minds, we gain more understanding of why others hold different views and why their experience of life is different.
When we put ourselves in new situations, we can learn to listen more – and not just with our ears; we can learn to listen with our eyes and with our hearts. We need to listen, not for our own benefit, but for the benefit of the other person.
3. We can avoid relating everything back to our own experience
I remember my first school exchange to France. I was about 14 years old, and I spent two weeks in Normandy with a French family. It felt so strange. Everything seemed different – from the food to the daily routine. I found myself constantly comparing everything to my own life at home.
I even remember feeling perplexed that the family had a tiny corner bathtub in the bathroom, instead of a full length one. (That seems such a crazy thing to think now!)
But after a while I started to take things in my stride, to accept that things were different and, most importantly, to understand why they were different.
This is of course just a small example, but if we’re going to build bridges of understanding and empathy between people in the world, we need to try to understand other people’s points of view – and learn. We need to put aside what we’ve always thought was ‘right’ and be willing to explore the things that contradict what we think we know.
This beautiful 12-minute TED talk from Okieriete Onaodowan shows us how “we are not our shoes”. He uses analogies from acting and highlights a powerful principle that binds us all together. It’s worth a watch. Here’s the talk: To Walk a Mile in My Shoes You Must First Take Off Your Own
The current crises in the world have thrown us all into a new place. Let’s use that as an opportunity to stretch the boundaries of our own perspectives, to tune into new ways of seeing, to detach ourselves from the assumptions that populate our minds – and open ourselves up to what it may really be like in someone else’s shoes.