We basically agree with the phrase "you just have to put yourself in their shoes" as long as the other person is upset, hurting, struggling, or when they say something rash in a moment of grief or stress. We also typically agree with it when we realize that we crossed the line or said/did something insensitive unintentionally. Basically, we are totally comfortable with putting ourselves in their shoes as long as we feel in control and the other person is "compromised" in some way. We can understand, or at least try to imagine, how the other person feels. That is basic empathy.
But we get really uncomfortable with the idea of putting ourselves in their shoes when both parties are "standing tall." Particularly when we find ourselves at odds with someone over an issue that we are very passionate about. In these situations, we completely do away with the idea of putting ourselves in their shoes. We change it to: "Walk a mile in his shoes...unless he is wrong." If I am right and the other person is wrong, then there is no reason to put myself in his/her shoes. Why would I put myself in the shoes of someone who is wrong? Some people are so far gone I am not sure that they even have shoes! At least that is how we often subconsciously approach them. I am convinced that this is why so many conversations break down (or never get off the ground) on tough issues.
Are you willing to put yourself in the shoes of someone you think is 100% wrong? I want you to think of an issue about which you are extremely passionate. Something that really gets you going. Can you put yourself in the shoes of a person who is equally fired up, but for the exact opposite point of view? I would imagine that many people have never even considered trying it. Some people reading this are probably mad at me for even suggesting it. But I am convinced that until you are able to do so, you will struggle to have good conversations about these types of issues. You will be stuck in a cycle of trying to express your views more passionately (which usually means louder or with more cutting sarcasm) than the other person, and typically walk away either feeling superior, like you were just bashing your head against the wall, or both.
The reason I think it is essential to put yourself in the shoes of someone you cannot see eye to eye with is that it gives you common ground where there appears to be none. Let me give you an example. For the purposes of this example, I have chosen to use the issue of abortion, since it is perhaps the most common issue about which people on either side find themselves absolutely flabbergasted with the folks on the other.
Suppose that person A is pro-choice and person B is pro-life. Both are very passionate about their respective views. Person A gets very irritated when person B posts things on Facebook that advance the pro-life position. So person A replies to one of these posts with the following: "Quit spewing your right-wing, fundamentalist, anti-woman, anti-human, propaganda!" There are a few ways for person B to respond. You are familiar with the most common approach--fight fire with fire. But can person B put himself in the shoes of person A? I believe that he can, and I believe that it is the only real hope for this conversation. Someone might say "well, person B could start by asking questions." I agree that asking questions is an excellent conversational tactic, but if person A is already fired up, they will need to cool off before they are ready to thoughtfully engage questions. Launching out with a question like "Why do you say I am anti-woman?" is a good question, but unlikely to get you anything more than another diatribe. Ask enough of those type of questions and you are just pouring gasoline on the fire. So, back to my point: person B needs to be able to put himself in the shoes of person A if this conversation is going to get in the air. You may be wondering, "How?" ::What follows may seem a bit tedious, but it is a lot simpler than it seems on paper.::
THE FIRST STEP is for person B to identify, in the most basic form possible, how person A feels. It can sometimes be frustrating to sift through the venom and sarcasm, but it is definitely doable. In this case, person A feels like what person B is advancing is anti-woman, anti-human, and based on illegitimate ideological presuppositions (religion and politics). Put even more simply, it hurts people for no good reason.
THE SECOND STEP is for person B to imagine how he feels about what has gotten person B so riled up (in the most basic form). In this case, how he would feel if someone was doing something that he was convinced was hurting people for no good reason. For this particular scenario that is easy to imagine. Person B is a passionate pro-life advocate for precisely the same reasons! At this point, person B is essentially "in the shoes" of person A. He still doesn't agree with him, but he can imagine how he would feel if he did because he knows that basic feeling very well.
THE THIRD STEP is for person B to express that, while he still disagrees (no reason to be unclear about this) with person A about the issue at hand, he can understand why he (person A) is upset. The goal of this step is not to be a trick. It isn't to catch the other person off guard and, in so doing, win the argument. The point isn't to "kill 'em with kindness." The person may be caught of guard, and the kindness may make an impression, but neither of these is the goal of getting in the other person's shoes. The point is to arrive at common ground. And this step gets us as far as we can get without the other person. That is where step four comes in.
THE FOURTH STEP is for person B to ask person A to do the same--put himself in his opponent's shoes. It may seem impossible or sneaky to try to convince the other person to do this, but I don't think it is as difficult or dubious as it seems. Steps three and four together might look something like: "Even though we disagree, I can understand why you are so upset. I know that you are convinced that my position is hurting people for no good reason. You have every right to be upset about that. As a matter of fact, I am just as opposed to that as you are. I actually feel the same way that you do--that your position hurts people for no good reason. But can you see it from my perspective? I know you don't agree with my position, but can you imagine how you would feel if you did?" If person A is willing to say "yes," and he should be, (that he can see it from person B's perspective), then the conversation is virtually ready to take off. If not, then the conversation was never going to get off the ground to begin with, and there is really nothing you can do about it.
THE FINAL STEP is simple but important. At this point, person B needs to explain that, since they each realize where the other is coming from, (in this case, that neither of them wants to see people hurt without justification), what is left is to discuss their views in order to determine the truth of the matter. They can do away with personal attacks and sarcasm, which come as an overflow of emotions, because they have both said that they understand why the other one feels like they do. At this point, they are ready to talk about issue at hand: does abortion hurt people without justification, or do people who oppose abortion hurt people without justification? These the real questions lurking behind the scenes in person A's original comment that need to be answered.
Again, let me stress that none of this is intended to be a trick for winning arguments. Neither is it a silver bullet. No formula fits every situation or works for every person. I simply wanted to share something that I have found to be helpful for fostering good conversations on topics that almost always crash and burn otherwise. Always remember, it is important to address people before arguments. In this case, the goal is to relate to the person in order to be able to lay the arguments out onto the table. If conversations on tough issues could be likened to playing a game of "Operation," then the goal here is to turn off the buzzer so that we can get all of the parts out without unnecessary anxiety. Sure, it may take some of the fun out of it, but when it comes to discussing ethics, values, religion, and ultimate reality, we shouldn't be playing games.
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