• joe@jhanderson.biz   
    (206) 351-5607   

  • “If you want to understand someone, walk a mile in their shoes.”

    I was in a certification course recently where one of the primary characteristics of the group was the varied and interesting shoes the participants wore. Phyllis wore a different (and fabulous) pair of shoes for every one of our thirty class sessions. Chris always sported a stylish pair of sneakers, which came in a variety of colors. Me? I wore the same boring pair of sensible brown shoes to every session.

    Most likely I couldn’t have walked a mile in Phyllis’s shoes, but it’s a proverb that rings true, and is a key component of team trust-building. The proverb encapsulates two powerful concepts: Theory of Mind and perspective-taking.

    Theory of Mind is our ability to recognize that other people have a different point of view than we do. When they look down at their feet, they see their shoes and not mine. They look at technical options and business solutions from a different perspective. Their whole constellation of life experience—education, family background, and more—gives them different ways of looking at things than I have. Though Theory of Mind is essential, by itself it’s not enough. For while it gives us the conceptual framework—the theory—for understanding someone else’s point of view, it doesn’t lead us into their experience.

    Perspective-taking goes beyond theory, and into the act of imagination that allows you to step into another person’s shoes and take a walk. You notice the contours of the sole, the shape of the heel, the way your weight shifts. Of course, your feet won’t fit perfectly into the shoes—perspective-taking will never be entirely comfortable—but you get valuable information unavailable any other way. Perhaps most importantly, perspective-taking humbles you. It doesn’t take long to realize that the other person’s world contains much more experience and nuance than you’ll ever fully grasp. Knowing that makes it easier to relate to them with curiosity and openness.

    Try It: Think of a specific person you work with who has seemed particularly difficult or challenging. First check out your Theory of Mind: how would you describe the factors that lead them into a perspective that’s different from yours? What job responsibilities and pressures do they face? What do you know about their background and their personal life? Then try a little perspective-taking. What does it feel like to be in their situation? What does the world look like through their eyes? What do you look like, seen through their eyes?

    Image: https://www.maxpixel.net/Sports-Shoes-Old-Shoes-Festival-Sneaker-Sneakers-2475903   Creative Commons Zero – CC0