This post originally appeared at http://www.teleosis.org in November, 2016.
Most of us have heard some version of not criticizing someone else unless we’ve walked a mile in his or her shoes. My experience with this is that it’s been thrown around by so many of us for so long without any authentic investigation into what walking a mile in someone else’s shoes might truly mean, it’s often an ambiguous, albeit well-intentioned, suggestion.
With few exceptions, when most of us think we’re taking a walk in another’s shoes, we sincerely believe we’re feeling and understanding the other’s feelings and experience of an event or set of circumstances. More often than not, however, we’re imagining what it would be like to be ourselves in the other’s circumstances, and in the delicate moment of truly intending to engage this client, patient, friend, loved one or stranger with compassion and empathy, we lovingly project aspects of our own views and experiences onto them. We may feel compassion and intend empathy, but we often project and distance ourselves from the very person about whom we care. This is perfectly understandable.
We look at ourselves, others and the world through a unique set of lenses that includes our points of view, history, culture (in its broadest meaning), environment, moods, masculine/feminine balance, personality, and levels of development across a wide variety of intelligences or developmental lines. These lenses together form and inform our narrative – our story. So, when we look at this person in whose shoes we intend to “walk a mile,” we indeed look at him or her through our own story. It is not until we can, with some degree of competence, do the work of identifying and understanding aspects of this other person’s unique set of lenses—and experience his or her circumstances through his or her lenses or story—that we are in some small or large way truly walking in shoes that are not ours. We must add to our ability to look at, the ability to look as this other person.1
No small task. It’s a lot of work, quite complex, and requires the essential first step of learning to look accurately both at and as ourselves, becoming familiar with our own unique set of lenses – our story.
Try this huge, fictional example on for size: imagine that all candidates for any political office consistently do the work of looking both at and as themselves, and because they deeply care about their opponents and all voters and citizens, they then engage their campaigns and debates deeply committed to looking as their opponents in order to better embrace dialogue that, win or lose, serves the greater good of all stakeholders, whether or not they’re constituents or supporters.
Back to this world. As coaches, our target is a bit more bull’s-eye-able, but still quite a lot of work. It’s worth repeating here that looking as another is impossible until we have at least an adequate sense of looking as and at ourselves, so we are familiar with our own narrative. Assuming we’ve done this work and have a sense of what’s ours, we can begin to recognize what, in fact, is the client’s (or any other’s), and we can feel into their story – truly begin to empathize with them.
Word meanings shift over time. Sympathy, which in at least one dictionary in 1980 meant “sameness of feeling; affinity between persons or of one person for another,” nowadays has earned an undesirable status – connoting for some of us, pity and sorrow, especially when it’s around its popular cousin empathy. In 1980 empathy meant “the projection of one’s own personality into the personality of another in order to understand him better; to share in another’s emotions or feelings.”2 Those of us who are familiar with and have embraced Brené Brown’s work (I am and have) might be surprised by the dictionary definitions in the notes below. Her brief video3 touchingly and humorously endorses empathy and villainizes sympathy, which is fine, and shows us what she means. But I would add that what’s important is the essential nature of how we engage an other and not what we call it.
Before we attempt to walk a mile in, or simply try on, another’s shoes, we need to have done the work of understanding how our own shoes fit, and if we happen to be shoeless, how our feet feel. Then, we can better try on, truly feel into and perhaps walk a mile in someone else’s.
1My introduction to the concept of and language around “looking as” is in Laura Divine’s “Looking AT and Looking AS the Client: The Quadrants as a Type Structure Lens” in the Journal of Integral Theory and Practice. Ed. Sean Esbjörn Hargens. Spring 2009, Vol 1, No 4, pp. 21-40. I have since studied with and worked for Integral Coaching Canada. This entire issue of JITP is worth a read for anyone who coaches.
2Working definitions for this article:
- Compassion – the capacity to “suffer with,” or share in the suffering, feelings or experiences of another; this is necessary for true empathy.
- Sympathy – the feeling of sorrow for others who are suffering, often accompanied by attempts to minimize or alleviate the suffering.
- Empathy – the ability to feel what another is feeling, as he or she is feeling it, absent – or at least aware of, my own projections.
- Projection – ascribing to another traits that I am unaware I have, whether or not the other actually has these traits. (i.e. it’s still projection even if the other has the trait that I’m projecting)
Primary definitions from Webster’s New World Dictionary of the American Language (1980):
- Empathy – the projection of one’s own personality into the personality of another in order to understand him better; to share in another’s emotions or feelings.
- Sympathy – sameness of feeling; affinity between persons or of one person for another.
- Compassion – sorrow for the sufferings or trouble of another or others, accompanied by an urge to help.
- Projection – the unconscious act or process of ascribing to others one’s own ideas, impulses, or emotions, especially when they are considered undesirable or cause anxiety.
3Link to Brené Brown empathy/sympathy video (3 minutes and well worth a visit): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1Evwgu369Jw