Put Yourself in Their Heart, Not Their Shoes!

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Trying to put our self in someone’s shoes is a great start to empathy. It means that we’re trying to imagine what another person might be experiencing and feeling in the specific situation they’re in.

However, this process has its limitations. When “we put our self in someone else’s shoes”, that we indeed do is putting our own self in someone else’s situation.

Because no matter how close we are to that person, we’re most likely very different than them. Therefore it’s unlikely that we would experience their situation in the way that they are experiencing it. A same situation can activate very different emotions, thoughts and responses from people who have different personalities, values and lifestyles.

For example, someone showing up twenty minutes late to a meeting might not even be noticed by one person, whereas it might lead another person to feel all kinds of emotions because of their values and how their life is organized.

If we want to cultivate empathy, doing our best to put our self in the shoes of the person we’re trying to empathize with is a great start, especially when we do not know that person well. It makes sense to start by looking at things from our perspective since it’s the only one we have. A valuable next step when we start caring about that person is to get to know them well - values, feelings, personality, needs, lifestyle, etc. At that point, we become able to put our self into their heart, and see things from their perspective rather than from ours.

Let’s say that I could not care less about someone showing up late but my friend feels frustrated when that happens to them. If I put myself in their shoes, I might be wondering what’s the big deal since I don’t care much about lateness. However, if I know - and fully accept - that my dear friend lives with a really tight schedule and really needs that people respect their time, not only will I understand them better when they feel inconvenienced by the lateness of others, but I will also do my best to respect their need when we schedule something together.

Rather than putting our self into their shoes, we’re now trying to feel into them, trying to become them, and then we’re putting that new sense of self into their shoes, into their specific situation.

This leads to a very different kind of understanding, a very different depth of empathy and a very different kind of relationship.