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Put Yourself in Your Own Shoes

Posted May 2, 2017 • Conflict Mastery,Emotional Intelligence,Leadership,Mindfulness • by Jennifer Goldman-Wetzler, Ph.D.
Conventional advice on solving conflict says you should “put yourself in the other person’s shoes.” This old adage suggests that by increasing understanding and empathy for the other side, we will be better able to create solutions that take their interests into account, thus allowing us to more quickly and effectively reach agreement.

 For several decades now, this advice has helped millions of people reach “win-win” agreements. The only problem is: this assumes that we know what we ourselves want, and why we want it. Which is not always true.

Think about it: have you ever been confused about exactly what you wanted? Or have you ever known what you wanted, but you couldn’t exactly put your finger on why you wanted it? You may have had a vague sense or a gut feel, but it was hard to put into words. In these situations, it can be difficult to explain to others the rationale behind our decisions, or successfully advocate for our own point of view.

For instance, a client of mine, the CEO of a multinational professional services firm, told me that when people on his team question a decision he makes, it is sometimes very difficult for him to pinpoint exactly why he made the decision. Even as he stands by the decision and is unwilling to change his mind, it is hard for him to find the words to explain why he made the decision. As a result, he and his team members suffer: his inability to find the words to describe why he made his decision is frustrating for him and his team members, and it decreases his ability to influence them. His team members suffer because they are left without a clear rationale for why the decision has been made and without the opportunity to weigh in on why another choice might have been better.

Why is it so hard for smart leaders to find the words to describe their own rationale? One reason is that some of us are naturally wired to see things from the other side’s point of view. We are born empaths, putting ourselves in other people’s shoes out of habit or even instinct. A second cause is the relatively recent emphasis on collaborative mindsets and skillsets in today’s schools and workplaces. Due to the overwhelming success of “win-win” collaborative strategies over the past four decades, many young leaders, and millennials in particular, have grown up in schools and extra-curricular and work environments that emphasize collaboration—including the practice of seeing things from other people’s perspectives—as a way of life. Finally, social expectations for how one should behave can vary widely based on family, cultural, religious, ethnic, gender and other norms. If you grew up in settings where putting yourself in others’ shoes was expected, or where opportunities for self-expression were limited, it is potentially more difficult to put yourself in your own shoes and express your own needs than it is for you to imagine how others might be feeling.

If this sounds like you, the next time you find yourself in a difficult conversation or conflict, before taking the other side’s needs into account, try putting yourself in your own shoes first. Take the time to ask yourself: What do I want here? Why do I want it?

Then allow yourself to be quiet and notice what answers emerge. Write down as many answers as you can. Don’t edit your answers; just get them down on the page or the screen. Particularly when we need to make decisions that are hairy or complex, there are often multiple reasons why we may want one thing or another. The clearer you can get about why and what you want, the better able you will be to communicate that to others. The more effectively you communicate, the more persuasive you’ll be. And the more persuasive you are, the more likely you will be to reach an optimal agreement and achieve your goal.

Jennifer Goldman-Wetzler, Ph.D. is the Founding Principal of the NYC-based consulting firm Alignment Strategies Group and Adjunct Professor at the Morton Deutsch International Center for Cooperation and Conflict Resolution at Columbia University.

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