Compassion has become a buzzword in corporate management. Compassion is generally understood to mean being in intellectual and emotional agreement with someone else. In other words you have a grasp of their experience so that it can be said that you understand them: that you’ve walked a mile in their shoes. And the intimacy that implies is a good thing because your connection with them should make a more explicit and clearer understanding between you possible. Intuitively that seems right and when walking in the other’s shoes works it is right.
The image, which is also a teaching, is ambiguous suggesting after that mile you will know what you need to know. Okay, let’s assume that. But the question remains how do you do that? What do you have to do to walk a mile in another person’s shoes?
I suppose you could take the other person’s shoes and walk in them but that’s just silly. What the image implies is that you experience the other’s experience in order to know them. But is that possible?
The answer is no, it’s not. We can never actually experience what another person experiences.
Can we imagine their experience? Well, not really. Our imaging will be our own and can be way off which leads to no end of confusion and a raft of other troubles.
Another metaphor is to walk in the other person’s story. This may seem easier. You might be able to relate to another person’s story versus the general idea of their experience because a story has a lot more detail. But the problem remains the same. You are trying to be the other person and the door is closed on that option.
So you can’t be the other person. You can’t imagine being the other person. It seems like the idea of walking in another’s shoes for any distance is more than just a myth; it’s a dangerous proposal because it sounds so good. And wouldn’t it be nice.
But there is something you CAN do.
When you are in an exchange with someone and you want to know them as best as is possible, survey your own experience, which you are in possession of, for a circumstance that aligns with what you see the other person going through. Your own experience will only be an approximate match but you can at least come as close as possible.
Now here’s the critical part. The match you’re looking for is an emotional one. It’s not an intellectual or conceptual match. For example, let’s say that the circumstance is an car accident. It’s doesn’t really matter if it happened on ice, or at a cross walk, or on a crowded freeway. What matters is the emotional impact on other person. Why? Because each of us will have a different experience of the same set of facts, the same data points. One person may be enraged. Another becomes depressed. Another is terrified. That’s the specific part of their experience you need to relate to in order to walk in their shoes.
When you survey your own experience you’re not looking for the time you were in a car accident. You may never have been in one. You’re looking for a time in your life when you felt the same as what the other person is feeling. Again, it will be only an approximation, but that’s better than nothing; because you understand the emotional experience and can relate through your understanding. AND you will have walked in the same experience well enough to make a connection, to find the sympathy that is genuine.
I’m sure you’ve had a moment when someone said something like, “I know what you’re going through” and you knew they were nowhere close. You may have appreciated their try but ultimately it didn’t work.
When you survey your own experience and your approximation can align with their experience the idea of walking in their shoes becomes as real as it can be. Therein lays the deep value, the authentic value of connection through understanding.
If the other person rejects the alignment, perhaps they are confused, or you are not reading them right, or whatever, you can ask what the other needs and hopefully find another moment in yourself that comes closer.
Bottom line—you cannot ever BE the other person so you can only walk in your version of their shoes. But your willingness to try reflects your care and your desire to see them as clearly and deeply as you or anyone can. That in itself is an offer of emotional generosity and sympathetic connection that most of us are looking for when we are in need, and it is the embodiment of walking in their shoes.
Judith Sherven, PhD & Jim Sniechowski, PhD