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. 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 his or her weight in salt will tell you that you can change the whole look of an outfit simply by changing the shoes. Shoes say a lot. They change your perspective both when you slip them on, and in how you appear to others. Shoes suggest if you consider comfort over style, or fashion over foot-pinching. In either choice, you’re portraying an image and communicating what you value at that moment to the world.
Shoes and how well they fit, affect your mood and confidence. When you’re wearing certain shoes, they provide a unique perspective of the world and of yourself. Hence, the importance of stepping into someone else’s shoes to really understand his or her perspective. That’s how you connect.
COMMUNICATION TIP: To understand, take a walk in their shoes.
There, 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 appreciate how someone else might feel in them.
The same is true figuratively and in how you communicate. It changes your perspective and breeds understanding — and that, right there, is the essence that feeds good communication: come from a place of understanding.
Sometimes things look pretty good at first blush and it’s not until you actually try on the situation for size, that you realize it’s not quite as comfy as it appears. Just like a pair of shoes that look perfect, you don’t know what they feel like until you have them on. You begin to appreciate that someone appears grouchy and off-balance because something in their life isn’t fitting right.
I encourage you to consider these two facts:
1) Everyone behaves how they do for a reason
2) That reason is an explanation, not an excuse.
If someone is communicating with you in a harsh way, it may have nothing to do with you at all. It could be simply 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, they are chronically suffering, and they lash out as a result. Unfortunately, if you’re in their firing range, you become one of the casualties.
Let me be clear here–I’m not saying it’s OK for people to behave inappropriately toward you. Their shoes may be an explanation for their behavior; they are not an excuse. There may be very valid and logical reasons why someone is in a foul mood, has a chip on the shoulder, or is angry with the world. Whatever the reason, it doesn’t give them permission to dump on you.
It’s an explanation, not an excuse.
What to do in a situation where you just don’t see eye to eye?
The first place to start is slipping on the other person’s shoes. See the world from their perspective. Feel the pinches and blisters that are likely rubbing them the wrong way. Consider the situation from their viewpoint. In doing so, you will breed understanding and build bridges.
When you change your perspective, you change what you see.
Everyone behaves the way they do for a reason, so take a walk in their shoes and think about what that reason might be. Even if you don’t know and can’t imagine, know that them disconnecting from you may have nothing at all to do with you and everything to do with something or someone completely unrelated to 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 giving less than stellar service, instead of getting upset, you could acknowledge their perspective and say, “I know this is your busy season and it’s been difficult to get back to me …”.
Some time ago, I experienced a frustrating weeks-long incident with my bank. Pamela, the Financial Services Manager, knew I was plenty upset for unnecessary delays and 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. Better judgment kicked in (thankfully) and I switched gears. Instead of going on and on about the problem, I said to 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 of hours later to sign off some papers, the branch manager popped in to personally apologize for the mix-up … and to waive my monthly fees for a year and order my business cheques for free. Wow! All because I tried on someone’s shoes and acknowledged how tricky they were to walk in.
It’s easy to complain. We all do it. It takes a big person and a great communicator to look beyond the complaint and your own perspective to consider, just for a moment, how the world looks and feels to someone else.
Isn’t it time you get that shoehorn ready and give it a try. Go ahead, take a walk in their shoes and feel the pinch … it just might bring you a step in the right direction to better communication.
Originally published ©2011 Marion Grobb Finkelstein and updated 2020
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