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If I Were In Your Shoes

Shoes - image from http://bit.ly/prNlYk

Shoes - image from http://bit.ly/prNlYk

I just finished reading another great post by Timothy Monreal (@mryoungteacher) on “Teaching Empathy“.  I do not disagree with Tim as I truly believe that the modeling of empathy and care is so important in our schools as well as in society. As I was reading it, though, I thought about one of my pet peeves: the statement “If I were in your shoes”.

Here is the thing: to be blunt, I appreciate the sympathy but you are NOT in my shoes so please do not pretend that you know what it is like to BE in my shoes.  I have been speaking with a friend who has a child with a significant disability.  He is doing his absolute best to make things work for his child along with his family.  He came to me and said, “people keep telling me they know how I feel and then giving me advice on what they would do if they were in my shoes… they don’t know everything about me and they don’t know what it is like to me.  I just wish people would give me some space”.

BOOM.  We don’t know everything about what someone else is going through.  All we know is what we are observing from our perspective. It is so important to model and practice empathy; however, we need to be careful to offer advice to people and pretend we know what it is like to BE them.  We can often mistake sympathy with empathy.

The most important thing we can do is listen, truly listen.  Be there… be there in the moment with that person.  Listen with your eyes.  If advice is requested, let’s ‘walk’ with the person and give advice from our shoes… and not pretend we actually understand what it is like to live in in the shoes of someone else.

Something I continue to work on…

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Chris Wejr

Proud father of twin girls and a son. Currently working as the Principal of James Hill Elementary School (K-5) in Langley, BC, Canada. Passionate about strengths-based education and leadership, reconciliation, assessment, and human motivation.

6 Comments

  1. What a fantastic blog post, Chris! I completely agree with you too. Your post actually reminded me of something that happened to a friend of mine 7 years ago now. It was the end of the school year, and I was eating lunch at school when I got a phone call from a friend of mine at another school. She told me something that I will never forget: the husband of a good friend of ours passed away. He committed suicide. I was shocked. I really wanted to be there for my friend, but I knew that I could not understand what she was going through right now. I didn’t know what to do. I went home that night and I thought. I wrote her a note the next day that I brought with me to the visitation. It said, “I’m thinking about you right now. When you’re ready to talk, I’m here to listen. Call or email anytime. – Aviva” It took some time, but when she was ready, she did call, and I was there for her when she wanted to talk. Seven years have passed, and I’m still there to listen.

    More than anything else, as teachers, I think that we need to model how to listen and how to be there to support others when they need it. Thank you for reminding me of this!

    Aviva

  2. I just had a great comment on Twitter from Cristina Milos (@surreallyno) and I thought it really added to the conversation and challenged me. It goes:

    On Sunday 10th July 2011, @surreallyno said:

    @MrWejr
    I disagree on the statements in your blog. http://tinyurl.com/5s9ostm

    Firstly, nobody pretends to be in someone else’s “shoes” 100%. That is ridiculous and the phrase is a mere language convention to express a degree of empathy.

    Secondly, you overlap or rather add to empathy – which is a natural inclination of humans (social beings)- advice. Therefore, you already mark a distinct path and a different type of person – the adviser.

    Thirdly, you misuse the word and mistake it for compassion, which is a higher level of empathy.

    For dictionary references: “Empathy is the capacity to recognize and, to SOME extent, share feelings that are being experienced by another sentient or semi-sentient being.”

    Furthermore, empathy, like creativity, are inherent abilities. We cannot “teach” them in the academic sense, but we can nurture them. http://tinyurl.com/44vjgbd

  3. My response on Twitter to Cristina was:

    @surreallyno Great points! This is why I love connecting. I am merely frustrated by those who offer advice to people as if they completely understand what it is like to be the other person. I hear this so often: if I were you, I would do this…. Through the challenges I have faced in my life, I have found that people tend to not listen and attempt to empathize but rather immediately offer advice (sometimes even interrupting). We can share SOME feelings of what it is like and that is appreciated, but we cannot advise others without an invitation and act as if we know what it is like to be him/her.

    The basic point I was attempting to make (but maybe not so successfully) was that we often don’t actually listen and turn on the advice response before understanding.

    Thanks so much for challenging me as a person and as an educator!!!

  4. Thank you for the conversation as well.
    On a different note, I understand your viewpoint having had quite a lot of challenges in my life,too (from social labels, aka being Romanian -which equates to “gypsy” to nearly 99% of my western interlocutors, to personal and family hardships).
    I wanted to add this as my comment might have come across as too critical although it was not my intention to sound so.

  5. I might suggest “How might I help?” in those cases where we are out of our league in offering advice. Sometime the response may be asking for advice and will likely be more welcomed.

  6. First thanks Chris for the kind words and I am humbled that my post inspired thinking and reflection in you. I really get your point and to be honest I both agree and disagree. Just over three years ago I was diagnosed with Type-1 diabetes. As a healthy, college athlete at the time, I was shocked and it led to big lifestyle changes many of them challenging. And even though I have a great attitude about it and consider myself unbelievably lucky in life, I often struggle with it. I sometimes get upset when people (in totally good faith) confuse me with a Type-2 diabetic or make special accommodations for me. Not fully understanding the condition themselves people will often make incorrect assumptions and suggestions (I would have made the same a few years ago). Unquestionable most of these people are trying to step in my shoes and help. And while I may get upset at first, I realize that it is kind-hearted in general and shows true concern. What probably makes me and other people initially upset is that people confuse help and service. Help often comes from above and it unequal. Service reveals a relationship between equals. This is often a very thin line, but I think it is essential. So to follow on what Jerrod said we should do more than ask how can I help. we should ask, “How can I serve?”

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