A number of years ago, one of my best friends shared with me a rather interesting question she'd been posed in a job interview. The person considering her for a position leaned across the table and asked, “If you were a shoe, what type of shoe would you be?”
Say what? (Don't worry, this is not a “shoe” article. Read on and you'll see where I'm going with this.)
It sounds a little out there, maybe even odd, to present such a whimsical question during a serious job interview. Some may even call it flippant. I believe it was brilliant. After all, shoes speak volumes about what people value. Think about it—what type of shoes do YOU wear? What are you wearing right now, and how do they make you feel: comfortable, sporty, sexy, powerful, authoritative, rich, poor, newbie, or professional?
Any red-blooded fashionista worth her weight in salt will tell you that you can change the whole look of an outfit simply by changing the shoes. Shoes change your perspective both when you slip them on and in the way you appear to others. Your choice of footwear communicates whether you consider comfort over style or sacrifice feeling-good for foot-pinching to obtain a certain image. Shoes and their fit affect your mood and confidence. They provide a unique perspective of the world and of yourself. That’s where the expression “walking in someone else’s shoes” comes from. It allows you to really understand another person’s perspective. And that's what allows us to connect with others.
Communication Tip: to understand, take a walk in their shoes.
I told you at the start that this article is not about “shoes” literally, just figuratively. You can see how physically changing shoes would allow you to feel differently and to appreciate how someone else might feel in them. The same is true, figuratively, in how you communicate. It changes your perspective and breeds understanding, which is the start of all good communication: start from a place of understanding.
Sometimes things look pretty good at first blush and it's not until we actually try on the situation for size that we realize it's not quite as comfy as it appears. Just like a pair of shoes that look perfect, we don't know what they feel like until we have them on. We begin to appreciate that someone may appear grouchy and off-balance because something in their life isn't fitting right.
I encourage you to consider these two facts:
1. Everyone behaves the way they do for a reason.
2. That reason is an explanation, not an excuse.
If someone communicates with you in a harsh way, it may have nothing to do with you at all. It could simply be that their “shoes” are pinching. Sadly, some people walk around wearing perpetually cruel shoes that make every step of their life miserable. They are coming from such a place of pain that they are chronically suffering, and they lash out as a result. Unfortunately, if you're within firing range, you become one of their casualties.
I'm not saying it's OK for people to behave inappropriately toward you. Their shoes may be an explanation for their behavior, but as stated in fact #2 above, they are not an excuse. There may be very valid and logical reasons why someone is in a foul mood, has a chip on his or her shoulder, or is angry with the world. Whatever the reason, it doesn't give the person permission to dump on you. Again, it's an explanation, not an excuse.
So, what to do in a situation where you just don't see eye to eye with someone? Start by slipping on the other person's shoes. See the world from his or her perspective. Feel the pinches and blisters that are likely rubbing the person the wrong way. Consider the situation from the person's viewpoint. In doing so, you will build understanding…and bridges.
Everyone behaves the way they do for a reason, so take a walk in his or her shoes and think about what that reason might be. Even if you can't imagine what’s bothering someone, know that the person's behavior may have nothing at all to do with you or the subject at hand. Acknowledge, to whatever degree possible, the reasons why a person may be behaving a certain way.
For example, if a service representative is grouchy and provides less than stellar service, instead of getting upset, you could acknowledge his perspective and say, for example, “I know this is your busy season and it’s been difficult to get back to me."
Just today, I experienced a frustrating incident with my bank that had been dragging out for weeks. Pamela, the financial services manager, knew I was plenty upset due to the bank’s unnecessary delays. The tension was growing between us. Pamela was the person who was in a position to help me and I realized that distancing myself from her was not an effective strategy. My better judgment kicked in (thankfully) and I switched gears. Instead of going on and on about the problem, I said to the Pamela, “Wow, so much paperwork and bureaucracy. I don't know how you deal with it every day. You're amazing.” When I went into the bank a couple hours later to sign some papers, the branch manager popped in to personally apologize for the mix-up—and to waive my monthly fees for a year and provide my business checks for free. Wow! All because I tried on someone's shoes.
Isn't it time you got that shoe horn ready and gave it a try? Go ahead, take a walk in someone else’s shoes. Feel the pinch. It just might bring you one step closer to more effective communication.