Empathy: how to take it from a cliche to action

by | Nov 16, 2020

 It seems like as a nation we are craving it and as leaders, it’s the top skill required of us.

It’s a big concept. A powerful skill. Necessary to create connection, to be understood, and to do the transformational, culture-building work we are called to do as leaders (and a nation).

Walking in someone’s shoes has become a cliche for empathy. When we say this phrase and move on, we are diminishing the power that real empathy holds. In today’s video, we’re going to bust up the cliche and talk about what to do instead to open up to an empathetic mindset.

This is the first of a series of videos coming at you about empathy. I’d love to hear what you think of the cliche and my thoughts on what to do instead.

[embedyt] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G8XaYiGog1g[/embedyt]

If you’d prefer to read the transcript, here you go!

Hey everyone it’s Erin. Today, we’re going to talk about empathy and specifically we’re going to bust up the cliche that comes immediately after, when someone says describe what empathy is. “Oh, it’s walking in someone shoes.” Yeah, that’s the cliche, we’re going to bust up today. Because when we use that to explain empathy, we’re diminishing the power that real empathy truly has. So, let’s talk about why that cliche doesn’t work. Now, imagine we were in a boardroom, or in your office with your work colleagues. Imagine you’re at a bar with a bunch of friends. And I said, “All right, we’re going learn how to be empathetic so we’re going to walk in each other’s shoes.” So, you take off your shoes, and then have your buddy take off their shoes, and then go ahead and slide your feet into their shoes and walk around the bar, walk around the boardroom, walk around the office. It’s kind of gross, when you think about it that way. Normally when I do this in groups, it starts off as this like nervous laughter but then it gets to this look of panic, like, “Is she serious? Do we really have to walk in someone’s shoes?”

And this is where the cliche, busts up. No, of course not. It’s disgusting. But what’s important is starting to realize where those shoes have been. So when you think about your closet and all the pairs of shoes that are in there, I want you to think about the current shoes and then all the shoes that have been there in the past, and all the places, they’ve been all the conversations they’ve been a part of all of the people that they’ve met. And once you start to go way back from before you even needed shoes and all of those experiences, we start to realize that I can never fully walk in your shoes. I can never fully understand what it’s like to be a black person in America. And for me to say, oh, “I’ll walk in their shoes,” is discrediting them and their experience.

So when we think about empathy, it’s not walking in their shoes, but it’s being curious about where their shoes have been. It’s that desire to want to know about their experience, it’s staying open to hearing them talk about their experience and validating that whatever their journey has been is their truth. And so instead of walking in someone else’s shoes, which let’s face it, we can never do. I like to think about walking next to that person, asking them, staying curious, and being open to hearing them share their journey, walking next to them to understand.

So I’m curious, what do you think about doing away with this cliche? What questions can you ask someone to truly understand their journey and their experience? What questions, or what part of your experience, would you want to share so someone can truly start to understand you? Let me know what you think. Let me know what you think about doing away with this cliche and getting into what empathy is really about, which is understanding that person’s journey. Talk to you soon.


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