“Put yourself in the other person’s shoes.” The advice is familiar. This practice is often associated with the golden rule of treating others as we want to be treated; but we rarely think how the advice should be interpreted.
There are two mistakes to avoid. First mistake: Assume that imagining yourself in the other person’s shoes gives you new knowledge.
All that imagining can do cognitively is to prompt you to recall what you already know about the other. Understanding others is harder than we think. Research shows that even helping professionals overestimate their ability to discern the needs of their clients through empathy. We need training and practice to learn to test our interpretations of what others say and what feelings they express. The more the other person is different from us, the more we need to work to understand the person.
Second mistake: Assume that imagining yourself in the other person’s shoes is the key to ethical conduct.
Sometimes we can intuit what is right in a situation without having to imagine ourselves in the other’s shoes. And just performing that act of imagining does not necessarily guarantee that we’ll come out with the right ethical answer. Sometimes you need to consult with the person(s) affected by your decision. And a habit of seeing ourselves through the eyes of the dominant social group can be discouraging to minorities.
Despite these caveats, there are reasons to imagine how the world looks from the other’s perspective. This is more productive than the emotions aroused by the spectacle of the other’s suffering. Imagining the effects of our action from the other’s perspective can awaken sympathy, understanding, moral reason, spiritual insight, and love.
Imagining oneself in the other’s situation gently displaces our customary self-centeredness. We come to focus on the needs of the other person. Thus the self-centered self is de-centered and re-centered in identification with the other.
How do you identify with others? What experiences have helped you see the world through the eyes of others?
Photo by Homer2: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/c/c2/Homer2_tango_walking_on_his_feet.JPG/120px-Homer2_tango_walking_on_his_feet.JPG