The often quoted standard procedure for gaining empathy and understanding is to imagine ourselves in another person’s shoes. But recent research by Tal Eyal, Mary Steffel, & Nicholas Epley (2018) suggests that stepping into another’s shoes and taking their perspective isn’t enough.
As psychologist Tal Eyal explained in a Quartz article:
“Our experiments found no evidence that the cognitive effort of imagining oneself in another person’s shoes, studied so widely in the psychological literature, increases a person’s ability to accurately understand another’s mind,” the researchers write. “If anything, perspective taking decreased accuracy overall while occasionally increasing confidence in judgment.”
While imagining ourselves in another’s shoes might make us feel better and feel more connected, we shouldn’t be all that surprised that we are probably missing our mark as to what is truly in the other person’s mind.
The act of “taking” their perspective keeps the focus on us. Not them. And, it requires a lot of assumptions. We assume we are capable of accurately imagining another person’s mind. We assume we can take on another’s perspective while keeping our own knowledge and biases intact. And, we assume our own bias and knowledge are sufficient as a substitute for whatever we lack in the knowledge and biases of the other person’s perspective.
Which might lead one to think the logical solution would be to become more objective by “removing” our own perspective. But realistically, that just isn’t possible. And even if we could, it would still leave us with a gap in the knowledge and bias within the other person’s perspective.
So the key to gaining a truer sense of empathy and understanding is in actually “getting” the other person’s perspective. This isn’t just a bit of semantics. Getting another’s perspective means we need to be open and receptive. We need to actually reach out and connect with the other person and do the simple, most basic of tasks of — ask and listen.
As Eyal et al., 2018 point out in Perspective Mistaking: Accurately Understanding the Mind of Another Requires Getting Perspective, Not Taking Perspective in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology:
Engaging in active perspective taking appears to have a number of reliable interpersonal consequences: it increases empathy for another person, increases the sense of similarity and connection to others, and encourages cooperation in negotiations. One recent theoretical model argues that perspective taking’s main benefit, in fact, is to strengthen social bonds (Galinsky et al., 2005). Our experiments are not inconsistent with this perspective. If a person is wanting to feel more connected to another person, then imagining oneself in another’s shoes is likely to be a useful strategy to adopt. But if a person is really trying to gain an accurate understanding of another person’s mind, then another approach seems to be called for. If you really want to know what’s on the mind of another person, it is hard to do better than getting their perspective by just asking them.
So if you want to be more accurate in your empathy and understanding — forget about their shoes! Just ask and listen.