Put yourself in her shoes… can you?
In offices, households, schools, and cities all around the world we’re seeing a big push for more empathy (although I’m not sure many people realize that empathy is what they’re asking for).
Empathy. It’s a basic human skill, one you might say fundamentally defines our humanity. Empathy is what allows you to care for a stranger, to extend yourself for a friend or a neighbor, and to fight for a cause that you might not immediately recognize as your own.
At its core empathy is simply the ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes; to examine and understand their experience at an emotional or personal level. Absolute lack of empathy is abnormal and disturbing. It’s what makes sociopaths, psychopaths, and narcissists so dangerous and repulsive to most humans.
Empathy is something we are struggling with right now. You can see it in how people respond to conversations about gender bias in the workplace, race, immigration, reproductive rights, and movements like #blacklivesmatter and #metoo that focus on supporting those not in power. We hunker down in our camps, unwilling to really consider what it’s like on the other side of the fence, dismissive of any experience that are not our own.
We don’t want to see, or understand, what it’s like to be you. If we did we might care and if we cared, we might have to change.
It’s child’s work, and damn hard work it is!
When I was a child psychologist I’d sometimes have to work with kids to develop their empathy. The process was fairly simple from a technical standpoint, and, of course, very complicated from a psychological one. I’d sit with kids – sometimes individually, sometimes in groups – and together we’d go over stories, and I’d prompt them: “How do you think that person feels? Why do you think she reacted the way she did? How would you feel if this happened to you?”
Over and over and over we’d go, trying to automate these thinking patterns so that in the playground, on their streets, and at home, with their families, they could relate to others and make better, kinder, more humane choices.
Because empathy is such a basic human response you might assume that people can and should just get it; that presented with facts and information, their hearts, just like Dr. Seuss’ Grinch, should grow three sizes.
They don’t. Empathy doesn’t work that way. To build it takes work, but without it change is impossible. Activists understand this. They know that real change comes not just from galvanizing your base, but also persuading those who don’t.
Put yourself in her shoes… can you?
This idea of shifting perspectives has been coming up again and again in my world. Earlier this week I read an article in Fast Company about men and gender equality in the workplace. It discussed whether men can actually put themselves in women’s shoes.
Over the past year, I’ve been making a point of reading and following a number of thought leaders who talk about realities that are foreign to my personal experience. I learn about the everyday issues faced by non-white, non-cis, non-hetero women, and women who have grown up and lived under policies, ideologies, circumstances, and expectations far different than mine, and I wonder can really I put myself in your shoes?
Then last week I started listening to the audio version of June Eric-Udorie’s “Can We All be Feminists?‘. It’s a collection of essays by women around the world whose insights and lives, again, are very different than mine, and I realize that the answer to my earlier question is ‘NO’.
No, I cannot put myself in your shoes. Or rather I should say I cannot easily put myself in your shoes.
Although I can learn to understand, first intellectually and then emotionally, what you face and need, I cannot do so without your help.
You see, despite my best intentions to educate myself and become more aware, my own experiences and lens limit me. Without your story and your voice, I would struggle to see on my own what it’s like to be you. I am not unique in this limitation.
This is how I know that building empathy, true understanding and beyond that making someone care enough to take your side requires your voice. It’s why it’s so important for you to speak up and share your story, ideas and thoughts with others. It is essential to bridging the gap.
Caring isn’t enough
You might think that living with or caring about someone means that you will understand them, but it’s not that simple. Consider the gender gap. Most men who participate in supporting gender inequalities live with women. They love women, care about them and want to see them thrive. Yet, they’re also the first to scoff when these same women complain of being dismissed in meetings, passed over for promotions, or uncomfortable when their appearance is commented on.
These men are not actively trying to oppress the female gender, but they are surprisingly reluctant to change their ways and make space to truly support equal treatment and fair representation.
They don’t get it, they often minimize it because they don’t experience it. And unless we as women can communicate our experience clearly and collaboratively, unless we can bridge the gap and foster understanding or empathy, they cannot become true allies.
In my workshops and presentations, I talk to both to men and women about the way women see and are seen in the world. I teach women about the filters that distort their perceptions and their actions (thus ultimately holding them back) AND I help men understand how women see and experience the world. The idea is to foster conversation, to build an understanding that allows men and women on a team to relate, empathize and support one another.
I am innately drawn to learning new things. My upbringing and my own muddled history have predisposed me to be curious about different people, cultures, and perspectives. I am quite willing to do the work and find the resources to grow my understanding and build empathy.
For many people, this either doesn’t come naturally or is not easily accessed. But you can help. By speak up, by sharing your story and presenting your views, you can be the first of many sources of knowledge for someone who is open to understanding. You can be a gateway.
It’s too big an ask
I often hear the thought leaders I mentioned earlier bemoan the never-ending requests for more, more, MORE!! More information, more explanations, more resources, more of their time to make our lives simpler. This is not fair. The burden of building understanding and fostering empathy should not fall on a select few. Not when all of us can participate in this process of enlightenment.
You can be part of the solution. Stop assuming that people can and will put themselves in your shoes. Even if they wanted to they can’t without your help. They need a way to relate to your experience and, trust me, exposés and documentaries don’t do the trick.
They need to hear it from you in ways that they can relate to. One day a light bulb will go off and they’ll begin to understand what it’s like to be you. They might even start to care enough to stand by and with you when you need it.
In Her Shoes: What It Means to Be a Woman in the 21st Century
We won’t bridge the gaps that keep us apart unless we build a common space of understanding.
Whether you’re trying to help women in tech combat sexism like Nancy Wang former Google product manager, or just working out a plan to better relate to your coworkers or your neighbors, what you need to #bridgethegap is women and men who are willing to speak up, share their stories, and voice their perspectives to create a common understanding.
To that effect, I have embarked on a huge project called ‘In Her Shoes’. It’s a collection of stories from women around the world talking about what it’s like to be a woman in the 21st century.
I’m gathering testimonials, some anonymous some not, on what means to be you. I want to build a free resource that anyone can access to understand life from a woman’s perspective.
If you or a woman you know want to lend her voice to this project simply comment or send me an email.
I can’t do this alone, I don’t want my story to be the only narrative out there, and want to know what it’s like to be you. Together we can bridge the gap, one conversation at a time.