Empathic Intelligence: To Put Yourself in Their Shoes, Unlace Yours
How to become a better listener and empathizer.
Posted May 21, 2009
“The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” — F. Scott Fitzgerald
To which I’d add that the test of a first-rate capacity for empathy is the ability to hold two opposed positions in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to think for yourself.
Shoe-shifting, or the ability to put yourself in the other guy’s shoes, is a fundamental skill of extraordinary power. It’s almost as magical as shape-shifting in fantasy in sci-fi. It’s the scientific method applied to social life.
We tend to assume science is, at its core, about experimentation, but there’s a deeper core still — a core that experiment serves. Science is the recognition that to get what you want, you have to set aside your want long enough to see what is. Then, clearer on context, you’ll have a better chance of getting what you want.
The Buddhists capture this approach when they say, “Truth waits for eyes unclouded by longing.”
Want more truth about your social situation? Put yourself in other people’s shoes. But to do that, you have to get out of your own. Our eyes are clouded by the longing to see ourselves in a favorable light.
If you can’t afford, or refuse to relinquish your authority, self-conferred exemptions and specialness, it becomes next to impossible to get next to yourself, in other people’s shoes. When you put yourself in another person’s shoes, you risk seeing yourself as others would see you—not quite as special as you think. But the pay-offs are worth it.
Shoe-shifting capacity helped save well over 90 million lives during the Cuban Missile Crisis. At the height of the Cold War, the Soviets had installed missiles in Cuba, 225 miles off the coast of Florida. Under this threat, President Kennedy thought his best option was an airstrike to bomb the missiles which would have undoubtedly led to an escalating nuclear war. Kennedy didn’t see another way out. We couldn’t let the Soviets just get away with it.
Tommy Thompson, a senior foreign service officer who had lived with the Soviet Premier Khrushchev advised against it. Thompson, a competent shoe-shifter, put himself in Khrushchev's shoes. He recognized that Khrushchev wasn’t expecting the US to find out about the missiles so early and hadn’t foreseen the potential for direct confrontation. He would be looking for a way to save face, to claim that he had saved Cuba from attack. He convinced Kennedy to make the softer offer that if Khrushchev pulled out the US wouldn’t retaliate. Khrushchev went for it, and we were all spared Armageddon.
As grand as the theory and political consequences may be, with shoe-shifting the devil is in the practical details. Most of us think we’re already great listeners and fabulous empathizers, but thinking it doesn’t make it so.
So what does? Here are a few practices:
Active Listening: You probably have heard of this technique. It’s about as powerful a skill as I’ve ever seen come out of psychology. Really, it has saved me thousands of dollars and years of grief. And it’s very simple. If you find yourself in a conflict or rift with someone, stop the decision-making for a moment and simply repeat the other person’s argument as persuasively as possible, in your own words. Then ask whether you heard it right. And then wait for an answer.
“Wait, Nicole. Before we go any further here, I want to make sure I understand what you’re saying. Please tell me if I’ve got this right: You think I’m being too nosy here, that it’s your decision to make and that though I have concerns, now that I’ve declared them, I should back off. Is that what you’re saying?”
With mirroring, there are a few booby traps to watch out for:
- Don’t slip back into decision-making mode. It’s really all about discovering whether you heard right.
- Don’t weigh in with your opinion, either directly by stopping mid-way with a “but there’s where you’re wrong” or with subtle and not so subtle mockery of the other person’s opinion.
- Don’t turn it into a one-upsmanship proof—“ See I was listening to what you said, nya nya."
- Don’t quote verbatim because that’s not proof that you really absorbed their opinion.
- Don’t assume that by stating the opposing opinion you’re agreeing with it or you’ll never succeed in saying it (you’re in conflict, remember?).
- Don’t mirror just once and then give up. If the person says, “No, you didn’t understand what I’m saying,” try mirroring at least one more time. And notice that to mirror by those standards, you do have to visit a place outside of your preferred sense of yourself. In my example above, to put yourself in Nicole’s shoes, you have to consider the possibility that you’re being too nosy.
There are a few broader uses of mirroring. When you’re leading a team that’s trying to decide what to do, and you want to encourage dissent so you consider many possible solutions, mirror the minority opinions. Every mirroring adds credibility both to the mirrored voices and to the process too, so that once a decision is made, people nonetheless feel that they were heard. Likewise, when you’re teaching and you want to stir more engagement and discussion, mirror the shy voices. Let them know you care enough to take the time to absorb their opinion.
Lot-limbering: You think you know your lot in life? Think again. And again—by means of avid Robin William’s Role Playing. I have a neighbor who role-plays a lot. He puts on this stern and slightly pompous voice in the low registers. To my ear, he typecast himself—the character stays the same.
What I’m encouraging here is more all over the map. Play up the variety of people you might turn out to be. The charmer, the duffer, the buffoon, the easygoing, the witty, the goofball, the little child, the senior citizen. You’ve the potential to be all that. Live with it. Visit it. Live in it for moments here and there. If you can do this without flinching at being any of these characters, you’re well on your way to an “I wouldn’t put it past me” attitude about your identity.
A lot rests on how you play these roles. If you play them mockingly or derisively, you may be more busy warding them off than embracing the possibility that the character is who you turn out to be.
Ram Dass described a doctor he knew who, whenever he started to get too deep into his role as the voice of sober authority would get up from his desk and walk around it one time. The idea was to loosen his clinging to a certain role. That’s the idea here.
Being Bob Dole but in skeptical ways: Saturday Night Live got mileage out of making fun of the way Presidential Candidate Bob Dole kept referring to himself as Bob Dole. On the campaign trail, Bob would say things like “Bob Dole doesn’t give up.” It was pompous enough to parody, mostly because this third-person Bob Dole he kept referring to was always doing virtuous things.
By combining mirroring and lot-limbering, you get the potential for third-person personal that is more balanced in its self-evaluation: "That Sherman, he sure thinks he’s got a thing or two to teach people. He sure thinks he’s clever. He never stops talking does he?" The third personification of oneself opens one into the great and hilarious hall of mirrors that identity really is.
Helping your opponent to help you: I promised a technique I’ve been experimenting with that works surprisingly well so far. It relies on Bob Dolification.
When I felt unjustly treated, sometimes I chose to let it be known. Sometimes when I ask for a simple apology, instead the response is escalating self-defense. I’ll persist a few times, always acknowledging that it could be me, but still always hoping to be heard, even without admission of guilt.
As the defense escalated, I’d keep wondering whether to hold out for an apology, or back off and give up on restoring rapport and trust. This new technique that has served me well so far entails writing an e-mail like the following—everything here is one e-mail from me.
I can see that Sherman is giving you a bit of a hassle. He can get pretty annoying I know, but here I’ll be your wingman. I’ve got it covered. I know the guy pretty well and I’ve taken the liberty to write to him on your behalf. Below find what I wrote, and his response.
Happy to be of service,
J (your wingman) Sherman
Sorry you felt that way. [Etc. etc. substantive apology without loss of dignity or admission of guilt]
Thanks for your note. I appreciate you looking at it from my perspective. We’re cool now. Thanks for taking the time.
I’m four out of four on this technique. I’d have given it lower odds. I figured it was a risky strategy that could easily backfire (“How dare you put words in my mouth?”) But every time it seems to lighten it up instantly. Like Khrushchev, most of us, when in escalating confrontation, welcome an honorable way to de-escalate without loss of dignity.
One last note: Every technique I describe here can prove counterproductive and/or be abused. Even mirroring. In fact, I’ve never met a single psychological insight or technique that can’t be.