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Sharing shoes: the art of empathy

Aug. 31, 2017
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Understanding an experience you have not lived through is hard. Empathy—the ability to connect with the perspective and the feelings of another—is the best way we have of trying to show support and understand an experience that is not our own. But all the empathy in the world does not beat actually being part of the situation or experience: the truth is that we can imagine an experience, but imagining an experience has no real impact on us. 

You can only feel so deeply about that which does not affect you. This is the reason people are the strongest advocates for concerns and injustices that have scratched their own lives. This is also why people tend to misinterpret, misuse, and completely miss the point of certain causes. When it is personal, the situation becomes more urgent. That’s why the best way to practice compassion is to seek out as many different kinds of experiences as possible.

While being well-rounded in general is always a good thing, the key is to seek out perspective-altering experiences that will give you insight into the other side of a familiar situation. Knowing both sides of a certain situation can be a surreal experience, but it can also be helpful. Take food service, for example: when you are a guest, you may complain about how long the food is taking, or why you can’t seem to find your server when you need them. When you have worked in food service, you remember all the behind-the-scenes things no one knows about—such as chefs having to sync cook times, mini-tasks like restocking utensils, or servers managing the three or four other tables assigned to them.

An example that may reach more people involves the final stretch before you clock out of work. No matter what field you work in, when the day is done, everyone wants to go home. Now, let’s imagine working in retail. You’re part of the shift responsible for closing the store. You have ten minutes before closing when a customer walks in. Some people may think, “They can’t be mad. You’re not done until you clock out, so you have to wait.” But let’s be honest: no matter what field we’re in, most of us mentally clock out of work a few minutes before the end of our shift. Walking in ten minutes before closing time is like reaching the second-last exam question, only for a teacher to give you ten more questions with three minutes until the end of class. Bam! More work you were not prepared for Knowing the feeling of wanting to go home after a long day of work, though, can help people to be mindful when they occasionally make a quick trip to a store before the store closes. You realize that if the shoe was on the other foot, you would not want a customer to come in and loiter around right before you need to close shop.

After experiencing another perspective, you tend to think of things that did not cross your mind before, things you might not have even known existed. Now, though, you’ve got a little background knowledge which will cause you to respond differently next time you’re in a similar situation.

Experiencing different perspectives of a situation is like sharing shoes with someone else. You are then in their place, and you have a better understanding about reasons for different actions or feelings. Sharing shoes can help people compromise. Seeing an experience from a different perspective works both ways: going back to our retail example, a worker might want to consider that their last-minute customer may have been running around all day looking for a specific item, and they are checking every store they can until they have the item. Being mindful is how sharing shoes works—kind of like a body swap.

Is there anyone you think would understand you better if they were in your shoes? Are you curious about what life would be like in another person’s shoes? Tell us in the comments!