Here’s Chapter 12 from Enough with the … Talking Points: Doing More Good than Harm in Conversation, which is now available for pre-order in Kindle edition. Stay tuned for updates on paperback availability before the end of June.
Chapter 12 – Understanding, Feeling, Embodying and Telling Another’s Story as if It Were Your Own
Most of us, during our ‘single-digit years’, hear a parent or teacher talking about the importance of never criticizing someone until we’ve walked a mile in his or her shoes. My first exposure to this directed me to never criticize another warrior until I had walked a mile in his moccasins. The message was and still is clear and valuable, and my adolescent self eventually saw it as another iteration of not judging my neighbor – of getting the plank out of my own eye before I pointed out the speck in someone else’s, of seeing someone else, another warrior or my neighbor, in the context of his or her own life and history, and not just through my own.
There is, however, as I’m sure you know (gentle reader), a big difference between eventually being able to see something and authentically embodying and living it. In my direct experience of sincerely trying to walk a mile in someone’s shoes – of understanding him or her amid his or her unique circumstances, and in my observing others attempting this same task, it is clear that a significant majority of us who attempt this often succeed reasonably well in fitting into the shoes and walking the mile, but we do so as ourselves and not as the other. More concretely, and somewhat simplistically, to make the point:
Our neighbor is navigating some troubling behavior with his 16-year-old. We feel judgment arise because we imagine we might navigate it differently, but then diligently remember the old moccasin-mile lesson from childhood and attempt to put ourselves into the details of our neighbor’s and his kid’s circumstances in order to better understand – and perhaps provide support. More often than not that’s exactly what we do. We put ourselves into their circumstances, but we have no idea what those circumstances look and feel like through their cultural givens, history and view of the world. What we need to do is find a way to feel and see things as our neighbor does while he’s wearing his shoes, and not just feel and see things as we do when we try them on.
We are taught to look at things and people and to try to understand them, and if we’re sincere in our looking and trying, we can understand some things and people in increasingly deeper ways – and that’s great. What we’re talking about here, however, is celebrating and building on this looking at people and learning to look as them – to see as they see, feel as they feel, in order to better understand what it’s like to be them in their circumstances (again, rather than be ourselves in their circumstances). No small task. So, while it’s helpful to try to feel the impact of the rebellious adolescent, divorce, diagnosis, pink slip, lottery win, lack of basic healthcare, sense of being inadequate or unloved, etc., it’s more helpful if we can do so with an embodiment of the other’s sense and way of being in and moving through the world.
Laura Divine writes that this looking as another “involves being able to look through their eyes, from their body-mind-soul in order to get a sense of their unique way of seeing and relating…. This process of Looking AS is a powerful practice of embodied perspective taking.”1 It’s not something we can simply decide to do; it requires that we first become competent in looking both at and as ourselves – recognizing and embodying what it feels like to be who we are with our history, personality, biases and overall worldview, a competence that allows us to better differentiate what is ours and what is someone else’s.2
Now, when we see our neighbor struggling with his kid, we can differentiate the influence of our own experience of adolescence and parenthood from our neighbor’s particular history and experience, and better see and feel the current issue through his eyes and body, and perhaps revise our navigational advice (or keep it to ourselves). Making this move does not prevent us from sharing the benefit of our own story and learning, from which our neighbor might actually benefit at an appropriate time and place. Rather, again, it ‘simply’ allows us to differentiate what is ours and what is his or hers, and to honor both – an honoring that comes in handy the next time the roles are reversed, when our neighbor offers to help us through some difficulty.
As we become increasingly competent looking first at and as ourselves, and then looking at and as others, what we and others say and do begins to make increasingly more sense – even if we believe it would be best to revise (or end) our or their sayings and doings. When we take the time to listen, look, recognize, understand and attempt to embody, we can put ourselves into their story and tell it as though it were our own.3
Imagine being able to do this amid a conversation in which you and another disagree.
Try This Story on for Size
One way to begin to explore is to convene with a friend, family member or colleague with whom you have a longstanding and trusting relationship. Select a topic that is of interest to you both, whether you are in agreement or not, and take turns listening to each other, asking each other questions, and getting as clear as you can on each other’s position and reasoning. Then take turns speaking as though you are each other. This mostly risk-free exercise allows you to begin to build the muscles required to tell another’s story as if it were your own.
Chapter Thirteen explores the question, “Who stands to lose, and how and what will they lose, and who stands to win, and how and what will they win, if what I promote truly manifests and what I protest truly disappears?”
1Divine, Laura. “Looking AT and Looking AS the Client: The Quadrants as a Type Structure Lens” Journal of Integral Theory and Practice, 4.1 (Spring 2009): 21-40. For more information: http://www.metaintegralstore.com/spring-2009-vol-4-no-1/looking-at-and-looking-as-the-client-the-quadrant-as-a-type-structure-lens. Laura Divine is a co-founder of Integral Coaching Canada. I completed their coach training program in 2011 and currently (2015-present) work with some of their students.
2See Chapters One, Two and Three to review personal history, personality, worldview and who (we think) we are.
3Some meeting or workshop “icebreaker” exercises skim the surface of this experience: a new acquaintance and I briefly share who we are with each other, and then introduce each other to the larger group – each of us speaking in first-person, as though we are the person we’re introducing. For a much deeper dive into telling another’s story as if it were our own, see the work of Narrative 4, an organization that uses “story exchange” to help young (and old) people develop empathy. “Narrative 4 harnesses the power of the story exchange to equip and embolden young adults to improve their lives, their communities, and the world.”