How do you put yourself in someone else’s shoes?
We all know the expression, “take a walk in someone else’s shoes,” but how do you make yourself see from someone else’s perspective? The truth is that you can’t. Not fully, at least.
That’s the first step to understanding how to support others; knowing — and acknowledging — that you will never have the direct experience of someone else.
When it comes to allyship in particular, “support” must be provided with care and humility. Similar to knowing that you’ll never walk the exact same path as another person, it’s also crucial to remember that you cannot be the one to deem yourself an ally. A real ally isn’t in it for the title or recognition, but due to the moral imperative that comes from empathy for another’s struggle.
Allies are recognized supporters of mistreated groups they aren’t a part of, who work to hear, amplify, and fight for the rights of that group. Being an ally requires a well-developed empathy muscle — and the good news is, empathy can be built.
So, how can we learn from real allies, to improve our own empathy? What can we do to better understand and support those around us?
While this article will not be about allyship specifically, being an ally is more important now than ever. And one of the prerequisites for being a good ally is empathy.
Empathy refers to “the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another in either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner.”
But that’s a mouthful. It might be easier to think of empathy as: the practice of honoring and valuing someone else’s struggle as if it were your own, even if you haven’t been there yourself.
Some people are naturally highly empathetic and are able to envision many perspectives and feelings. For others, empathy is a learned skill. There’s no shame in that at all, but it might take some effort to “build that muscle.”
Whether you’re naturally empathetic or not, we can all work on further developing ability to see things from each other’s view. It’s essential to remember that we are all learning and that learning is an endless pursuit. There is no end to learning empathy or learning how to support another person; we should all hope to improve continuously through our lives.
The difference between “I’m listening” vs. “I know” holds a lot of power. If you’re not good at seeing things from others’ perspectives, the best way to do it is to engage in empathetic listening.
Empathetic listening is a concept that refers to actively listening to another person, with the intent to understand, rather than reply.
In general, empathy involves hearing what people have to say about their own experiences, and believing them.
When someone is angry, for example, look to see where they’re coming from. Don’t think, “what would I do in that situation?” and judge the other person based on that. Instead, think, “what would it be like to be them right now?”
When someone tells you how they feel, focus on the feeling instead of the situation. Do this both in your response and internally. Treat whatever emotion a person is expressing as fully, unquestionably valid.
Always ask open-ended questions that allow a person to share as much or as little as they want to.
Never force someone to share more than they want to, but be all ears when they’re willing to share.
Make sure that you don’t offer unsolicited advice. Instead, ask questions, and if someone says no, respect that.
Questions that focus on the feeling include two things: acknowledgment of emotion and lack of judgment. Examples of questions that “focus on the feeling” include:
Another lesson to take from allies is the fact that, when someone is sharing their feelings or their experience, it is not about us. When you’re working to provide empathetic responses, don’t make any assumptions and remember that no one owes you anything, including their feelings or their story. Treat someone like they are giving you a gift when they open up to you because, really, they are. “Thank you for telling me that” and “thank you for trusting me with this” are very powerful sentences. You might not always know what to say, and that is okay. Do the best that you can and understand that your heart is in the right place if you are there to learn and support someone else.
Make sure to examine any potential biases that are stopping you from seeing another person’s view. Do you have judgment toward their experience? For example, if someone is a high school dropout, are you judging that? To develop empathy, judgment is something that you need to be aware of. The reality is that we all have different access to education and that we all could’ve been born in a different situation than the one that we were born into. Project implicit is one resource that can help us discern our biases.
Here’s a hard fact; anyone could’ve been born someone else. Had you been born to another set of parents, you could’ve been born in any body, in any situation, and in any location. For many, this is a key concept to developing true empathy; getting to a place where you can think, “what if I’d have been born in their place?” When you judge something that someone else is doing or feeling, look at it with your heart instead of your head and deeply explore all of the “what if’s” that come with the reality that we could have all been another person with a different set of cards.
If you can’t understand what it’d be like to be poor, think to yourself, “Okay, I can’t understand that, but what if I’d have been born poor?” with that thought in mind, what would your upbringing have looked like? What would family meals look like – if you had them at all? What would going to school without clean clothes, shoes that fit, or school supplies feel like? And what if I’d been bullied for that? What would it be like to have been hungry and houseless at the age of 15? What if I hadn’t gotten to go to school consistently? How would that have impacted my opportunities? Any time you think of a reason to discard the validity of a person’s experience, think, “what if that wasn’t true for me, either?” or “what if that wasn’t available to me, either?”
Ask yourself internal questions until you get to a place where you are feeling heavy emotions for another person. Until that pang hits your heart and you become somber. This can be a painful yet powerful exercise. Again, let yourself feel anything that comes up for you, including remorse. Use that emotion to think of how you can welcome others and learn more. Challenge yourself, and if you find that, ultimately, you still can’t imagine what it’s like, just listen.
Attempted empathy falls a little flat, when the other person has to explain to you how to care about their struggle. It doesn’t have quite the same impact when you say you care, but not enough to have questions you just have to find the answers to.
Luckily, the internet is an excellent resource for learning a little bit more about what life is like for other people. Search for stories of people who are in situations you don’t understand, whether that’s through an article, blog, video, or podcast. You can search hashtags on Twitter, write questions on a website like Quora, or watch documentaries and personal YouTube videos online.
The need to do your own research goes along with the concept of allyship. Sometimes, when you want to understand something outside of yourself and are at the very beginning of the process with a lot to learn, there is a tendency to put the labor on others. We may feel tempted to ask: “What do I need to know?” But we also have to understand that’s adding another burden on someone who’s already struggling — unless they offer to help.
Take in a wide variety of personal stories that are already out there, and you will be surprised by how understanding and empathetic you become. Of course, don’t assume that everyone has the same story or feelings as those you’ve found in the learning process.
Research is foundational and is also a continuous process, but one thing that goes for every single person on this planet is that we are all unique. Our greatest similarity is that none of us are the same. So, if you’re hoping to learn about LGBTQ+ issues or to support an LGBTQ+ friend, for example, remember to learn to hold space, go in assumption-free, and to take no for an answer if applicable. If someone is open to sharing, hear them out fully and ask those open-ended questions such as, “If you want to, can you tell me more about that?”
Again, you might not always know what to say to someone when you want to support them. Remember it’s ok not to know, as long as you say: “I’m here to learn.”
You may never be able to take a walk in another person’s shoes, but you can use the term as a visual to build your empathy through imagination. Empathy generally involves thinking, “How would I feel if I were the one experiencing this?” If it’s hard for you to grasp how someone feels or why they feel the way they do, don’t be afraid to admit it.
Really, don’t! It’s okay not to know, and actually, it gives you an excellent opportunity to learn. If you make a mistake, it’s okay. We all do. Let yourself feel anything you’re feeling, and take the opportunity to acquire more information. If there’s backlash, allow that, too.
Remember that we are all having human experiences that come along with a lot of feelings. To quote a frequently stated but incredibly important piece of advice: “Your feelings are valid because you feel them.”
Try to remember that if you’re frustrated, the other person might be too.
Remember that having empathy for others does not mean that you do not have struggles of your own, or that your struggles are not as bad.
When you are having a hard time, it is not about who potentially has it worse; struggling is not a competition, and everyone’s feelings are valid. Even if you have a very different life from someone else, a big part of empathy is understanding that struggle should not be compared.
Have empathy toward everyone, even if it’s something seemingly small, like your little sister crying about her lost toy. Can you imagine how that is a big deal, to her?
As you’re strengthening your ability to feel for others, afford yourself the same compassion. Know that anything you are feeling is real, and that all of us need support.
Whether you reach out to a loved one, a mental health professional, or just to peers online, it is important that we all have someone to talk to. Remember to take in all of the experiences you can and to approach every individual you meet with love and kindness and to give yourself that, too.