A while ago I gained a little bit better understanding of what putting yourself in someone else's shoes really means, that I would like to share with you.
I have always thought I was pretty good at empathising with people and putting myself in their shoes. For those of you who know me, you can stop laughing now. But I am serious, I do not want to sound so earnest about it, but I really did think I was good at it. Yet another illusion that has been crushed.
I cannot even remember what the situation was that gave me this new understanding. I think this is really code for I cannot share it.
In the past, when I have tried to put myself in someone else's shoes that is what I literally did, well not literally, but I really did put myself into their shoes. But the trouble with that approach is that I am in their situation but still behaving as I would in the circumstances. This gave me no real understanding of the other person's point of view. I would still be totally baffled about how this person could behave the way they were.
So here is my new understanding: instead of putting myself in the other person's shoes, what I need to do is to try and feel what it is like to be that person with their way of handling the situation. So instead of coming out of it, thinking 'how can they behave like that, this is what I would do', it turns it around and I can then see things differently.
Here is an example, that I can share:
A while ago we were having some issues with our neighbour. They are a lovely old Italian couple and we have always been friendly with them. They are very noisy - lots of shouting and yelling - and when the extended family come over, it can be really, really noisy. It has never been a problem - maybe just a few times when I wished they would not be quite so loud when I was trying to put Luke down for a day sleep when he was little.
During this last summer, when it was really hot and balmy they had their usual crew over but it was even louder than usual. They had one of their windows open, which unfortunately is directly across from Luke's room. It was so loud in his room that it sounded like the party was in there. Luke asked if I could go over and ask them to quieten down for a little. A little bit reluctantly I went over and explained that I was trying to put Luke to bed. I did not ask them to quieten down. I just asked if they could close the window just while Luke was getting to sleep - for about 10 minutes or so. I could tell that they were annoyed and I was very apologetic for bothering them.
They closed the window and Luke was asleep in a few minutes. I popped my head over the fence and thanked them again and said they could open the window again if they wanted to. In the meantime, they had taken the party outside and were even louder. I got a cold reply.
At first I was quite annoyed. It is not easy to go over and bother people. I could not understand their reaction. I had not asked them to quieten down. I had just asked them to close a window for a few minutes.
In the scenario that played out in my head - with my usual way of putting myself in someone else's shoes - this is how it went: I could understand it would be a bit annoying for someone to come over with a request while I was busy having a great time. But my neighbours are so lovely and Luke is such a gorgeous boy that of course it would be no effort to close the window for a few minutes. It is important to be considerate when we are living so close to each other and I appreciate it that rather than stewing about it and putting up with it that the issue was resolved so easily. Hmmm .... this did not help me to understand the situation.
Now here is the scenario with me putting myself in their shoes and feeling what it is like to be the other person. Okay here goes: Those neighbours are so annoying. Who do they think they are - we should be allowed to make as much noise as we want to. It is a hot night and we want the window open. How unreasonable of them to come over and bother us. Children need to get used to noise - why should we do anything differently. It is not our problem. Let's go outside and make even more noise. Maybe that will stop them complaining and bothering us in the future.
I still could not really understand their attitude but I did learn something - it is not their problem. It is ours. It was the start of summer and it was likely to happen again. I certainly did not relish the idea of having to go over there if it happened again. But what was the solution. I came up with two - we can either move or try to lessen the impact of the noise by getting some roller shutters. We were not in a position to move house and it is probably a bit drastic. I did not know why I had not thought of it earlier - roller shutters. It took us a few weeks to get them organised but Luke now has a lovely roller shutter and we are now in control of the situation. We do not have to rely on the goodwill of our neighbours.
It sounds really simple but it was quite a realisation for me. Rather than getting stuck complaining about our horrible neighbours, a solution was found. It was our responsibility, not theirs.
I felt a bit awkward with them for a few weeks when I would see them in the street but we are back to saying friendly hellos to each other. Perhaps I do not think that they are quite as nice as I thought they were. A while later when they required access to our property to do some repairs on their house, I was tempted for a second to say no - but it was just for a second.
So apparently, I have not been very good at putting myself in other people's shoes. My ego was a little bit bruised, but it has helped me to have a better understanding of other people. Life is all about relationships. We all see the world so differently.
How good are you at putting yourself in someone else's shoes?