Contributed by: Steve Johnson

As the old saying goes, “do not judge a man until you have walked a mile in his shoes”.

Supposedly, this oft-recited piece of wisdom is of Cherokee origin. However, where in the world it comes from is largely immaterial, as its value is universal.

The meaning of the phrase is obvious; by ‘putting yourself in their shoes’ (as a common variation has it) we are attempting to see a situation from a point-of-view outside of our own. As the great Jedi thinker Obi-Wan Kenobi had it,“Many of the truths we cling to depend greatly on our own point of view”.

Setting aside the ego in order to consider a different opinion can be very hard for people, particularly those of us in the western world. However it is necessary if we wish to understand others and empathize with their points of view.

Our tendency is to view ourselves as the hero of our own life story and, as such, we tend to see ourselves as rarely, if ever, being wrong. Empathy, essentially, means stepping into someone else’s story for a while, even if it means seeing yourself as the villain.

The reward, of course, is a healthier and more balanced perspective, as well as a greater ability to resolve conflicts with others.

The word ‘empathy’ comes from the ancient Greek word empátheia (literally meaning ‘passion’). The modern word (attributed to psychologist Edward Titchener) is usually defined as “a feeling of identification with something or someone”.

We may empathize by drawing from our own experiences or by imagining ourselves in the situation presently being faced by another.

We must be cautious with both approaches, however, as we are still viewing these things through the lens of our own experience. It can be a mistake to assume that you automatically understand another person simply by considering their problems for a while. In many ways, such feelings are as much a creation of the ego as the assertion that your perspective is always correct. 

Empathy, then, usually begins with experience or imagination. Thanks to our brain’s collection of
mirror neurons
, it is also a natural, biological consequence of being human. So, how do we put ourselves in somebody else’s shoes?

A good place to start is to ditch any prejudicial or judgmental feelings you may have toward a particular issue or person; you are here to listen, not to judge.

Ensure also that you are listening instead of simply waiting for your turn to speak. Do not interrupt.

Friendship is more important than being right. Few arguments end with one person admitting that the other is right. Where possible, you should push for understanding, not persuasion.

When asked for your opinion, keep in mind that questions often work better than statements.

The subject of empathy is a rich and complex one – and there is much more you can discover if you wish to.

It feels appropriate, however, to end this piece with a popular Indian parable.

A group of six blind men were informed that an elephant had been brought into their town. Each had been blind since birth, so none had ever seen an elephant. The blind men went to inspect the elephant, each of them touching a different part of it in order to ‘see’ this impressive animal. The first man laid hands on the trunk, reporting, “This creature is like a large, thick snake”. The second found the animal’s ear, which he decided was not unlike a fan, as it was rough and flat. The third, finding the leg, described an elephant as being like a great pillar or tree trunk, while the fourth, after feeling its side, said that the animal must be a kind of “walking wall”. The fifth and sixth, having felt the tail and tusks, respectively, decided that an elephant must be like a rope, or else a sort of sharp, smooth spear.

Author’s Note: Steve Johnson
This is part of a larger guide from the working the doors website about anger management techniques.