Letting someone else walk in your shoes

 Relationships  Comments Off on Letting someone else walk in your shoes
Aug 202013

The flip side of trying to find out what life feels like to another person is to facilitate that other person’s understanding what life feels like to you. Part of the value of self-awareness is to be able to describe our perspective to someone else.

The tension I struggle with is how to give the right amount of information about myself. Too little and we risk misunderstanding; too much and I risk both overloading the other person and feeling exposed. I’ve talked before about how I used to feel compelled to regurgitate the accumulated traumas and shame I carried around with me all over anyone who stood still long enough (see Judicious use of self-disclosure). This was not the way to go and I have since over-compensated by becoming very cagey about my private life until I get to know someone pretty well.

I feel I have over-compensated because it doesn’t feel natural. I’m a naturally open person but I’ve regretted opening up to people so often over the years that it feels safer to err on the side of caginess. Well, it is safer. Safe isn’t always the best or most important thing a course of action can be but for the moment, at least, it suits me. And if you have a tendency to feel over-exposed, I recommend you train yourself to be more circumspect about baring your soul to people you don’t know well enough.

But the point I want to make today is that once you do get to know someone well enough, if you want to have a fulfilling relationship with them – of whatever type – it will help a lot if you can give that person the information they need to be able to understand you. This, of course, is a huge and ongoing task and its success depends also upon the other person’s willingness to listen and capacity to comprehend, but in the same way as you need to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes, you have to be prepared to lend your shoes for them to try on if they’re going to get a sense of how you see the world.

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Walking a mile in someone else’s shoes (2)

 Relationships  Comments Off on Walking a mile in someone else’s shoes (2)
Aug 132013

As I said last week, do as you would be done by (to use Charles Kingsley’s terminology from his novel The Water Babies) is a great rule of thumb: treat others in the way you would like to be treated yourself. However, there are pitfalls in this unnuanced approach because people are all different. As George Bernard Shaw put it: “Do not do unto others as you would expect they should do unto you. Their tastes may not be the same.”

It took me forty years to understand that other people can see the world in a radically different way from me – and still be right! Their reactions, expectations, hopes, dreams and fears may not line up with mine at all. I find it extraordinary now that something so obvious had never occurred to me but I was brought up that X,Y and Z perspectives and feelings were the correct ones and anybody who perceived or felt otherwise was misguided and weird.

Before I grasped this fundamental truth, I was frequently surprised and upset when I gave what I would have wanted and it was not well received. And I was equally perplexed and offended when what other people gave me was not what I wanted but – I realise now – what they would have wanted in my position.

The most successful relationships are those in which the channels of communication are wide, unblocked and in constant use. In order to treat other people in the way they would like to be treated, we have to know what that way is. As we get to know them, we may be able to guess with increasing accuracy, but the safest course is to ask. Conversely, if our own needs are not being met, we have to explain to the people around us what we’d like them to do. It’s only through talking and listening that we’ll all learn to get it right for each other.

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Walking a mile in someone else’s shoes (1)

 Relationships  Comments Off on Walking a mile in someone else’s shoes (1)
Aug 062013

How to relate to each other successfully is arguably the biggest challenge faced by human beings all over the planet. Sometimes I get the impression some individuals give so little thought to others that they appear not even to realise other people are people.

The old native-American adage that you can’t judge a man until you’ve walked a mile in his shoes is wise advice. Truly understanding another person is a virtually unachievable task but the first step, as it were, to walking a mile in someone else’s shoes, is to put yourself in their position and see how you would feel in those shoes, before you begin to consider their journey.

Although it’s possible the other person will have completely different attitudes and reactions from yours (the subject of next week’s post), thinking how you would feel in their situation is a good start, the first staging post on the road to empathy.

Failure to ask the basic question, “How would I feel?” underlies millions of instances like these every day:

A rings B. B is eating and says he can’t talk now, so A terminates the call. On another occasion, B rings A. A says he’s eating and can’t talk now but B just talks anyway.

C has a headache and complains loudly and persistently, demanding sympathy from all sides. Later, when D gets a headache, C is impatient and can’t see what D is making such a fuss about.

These are mild examples but they are symptomatic of an inability to grasp the concept that if you don’t like whatever it is, there’s a good chance the other person won’t like it either and you owe them the courtesy of treating them in the manner you like them to treat you. Otherwise, you’re behaving as if the other person’s needs and preferences are subordinate to yours – and that is not the way to build healthy, happy relationships.

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