Change Work March 2008

Walk a mile in my shoes

How do you know what someone else is thinking?

The only reliable way is for them to tell you - and for you to have good reason to believe what they tell you!  Everything else is guesswork; often involving a projection of your own thoughts, opinions and feelings onto the other person.  We call this "mind-reading" and it's a common trap that we fall into very easily.

Now, whilst you can't tell exactly what someone else is thinking at any moment, you can get a surprising degree of insight into their general view, say, of a certain situation.  For anyone you've had previous contact with, you can "step into their shoes" and experience an imagined, or recalled, situation as if you were them.

So, how do you avoid mind-reading?

Well, rather than projecting your own view of the world onto another person, you take the trouble to explore theirs.  Perhaps you already have a good idea of some of the things that they value - and perhaps those things are different from your own priorities.
What would it be like to value those things?  How would the current situation appear to you now if you shared those concerns?

What do you know of their beliefs (in relation to this situation) and how would sharing those beliefs, for a while, change your expectations?

It may be that you habitually review past meetings, or imagine future ones, from your own perspective: looking out of your own eyes, as if you were actually there, as opposed to seeing a "movie" - with yourself in it.  This "own view" is known as First Position.

In this position, you are yourself and you see the other person in the same way that you've always seen them and your feelings about them are the same as they always were. But how much of your perception of them is based on your own view of the world?

When you next need to prepare for a difficult meeting, perhaps with someone you're not very comfortable with, try sitting down with an empty chair facing you.  Imagine the other person sitting there.  You're in First Position and you will be well aware of what you think about that other person and what your expectations are for the meeting.  Take a few moments to explore all of this - especially your feelings about the situation.

Now, physically move to the other chair and imagine that you are that other person, sitting there, looking at you. In this Second Position you are the other person.  When you use the word "I" you mean them!  You take on their values, beliefs and opinions as far as you can - and that might be a lot more than you would have expected.

In this position, look at the person facing you (that's the usual you) and review what you think about them.  How do they come across to you?  Friendly, and helpful or arrogant and bossy?  Confident and competent or hopelessly floundering? You can be completely honest!

Still in Second Position, review what you want from this meeting.  What's possible?  What's likely?  What are you expecting the other "you" to do?

When you've thoroughly explored this new perceptual position, get up and move to one side, so that you can see both chairs and imagine both people present.  This is Third Position - the observer.  In this position you are removed from the emotional content of the meeting. You might still have feelings about it - but you aren't directly involved as a player.

What can you now see and hear that's different from the other two positions?  What do you, the observer, feel about what's going on?

After experiencing Third Position for a while, move back to your original chair - back to First Position - yourself.  What have you learnt about the other person and the situation?  How has your understanding developed?  What can you do in the real meeting to achieve a better outcome for both of you - and for all of the other people who could be affected?

This technique is useful in preparing for meetings and also for reviewing them afterwards: perhaps things didn't go very well and you want to understand what happened, and hence how to do better next time.

Use it for:

So, try experiencing the world from someone else's perspective.  It's easier than you might expect and there's no need to read minds!