#CareerPlaybook 011: Putting yourself in the other one's shoes

(your shoe size does not matter)


You can get more from people with this. And the world would be a better place.

My mother did not believe that I would succeed in Sales when I started my career. I proved her wrong.

Her belief was based on the fact that I am an introvert - and Sales is mostly seen as a career for extroverts, who can connect with and understand others.

"You know who you are, you don't know who you may be"

She was right, I am not a natural at understanding others.

But I learned to.

And if I had to boil it down to one thing, it is that I learned to always try to put myself in the other one's shoes. See the world, and the situation at hand, from their perspective.

It can start by making assumptions based on their role and personal attributes, but mostly, it requires a discovery process of the other person. The more I know about a person - what drives her, what pains she has - the more I can get an accurate picture of how she looks at things. So I can relate to her. And derive from it what I need to do or say (or even how).

This applies to almost every situation in life involving other people.

It is particularly true in companies and business in general, where the goal is to get something from someone:

  • support from colleagues
  • outstanding performance from a team
  • a job from an employer
  • a raise or promotion from a manager
  • a sale from a client
  • a discount from a supplier

In order to do what is needed for that person to give you or do what you want, the best thing to do first and foremost is to put yourself in her/his shoes and try to see yourself from their perspective and listen to yourself with their mindset.

So if you are:

  • in Leadership or Management, aiming to get buy-in and commitment from your team: ask yourself what you would want to see and hear from you, if you were a team member.
  • in Sales, aiming for a sale: ask yourself what you would want to hear and see if you were in the prospect's shoes, to buy from you.
  • in Customer Service, aiming for customer satisfaction: ask yourself what actions and words would make you satisfied as a customer, and talking to your friends/colleagues about it.
  • in Project Management, aiming to deliver a successful project: ask yourself what you want to hear and see, both as stakeholder of the project assessing your work, and as project team member needing to deliver the work.
  • a waiter/waitress, aiming to maximise his/her tips: ask yourself what you as a client would want to have as experience, to leave behind the biggest tip.
  • .... you get the gist!

Half-empathy is good enough

A lot is being written and said about people needing to have empathy.

To become a better human being and succeed (more) in the workplace.

As an antidote and differentiator to machines, in a world where more and more tasks, processes and jobs will be automated away.

Or as a critical skill to become a great leader.

Empathy is defined as "the ability to understand and share the feelings of another."

While I have been successful in Sales, and commended as a good leader, I have always struggled with the concept of empathy.

Empathy is often used as a synonym for kindness. And while we should all strive to be kind, sometimes, especially in the workplace, kindness can be hard to come by, or even defeat the purpose (pushing someone beyond what s/he think s/he is capable of, can be tough in the moment).

What I came to realise, is that it's the "share the feelings" part of the empathy equation that doesn't resonate with me.

Sharing the feelings of everyone you meet or work with, sounds both emotionally straining and very hard to do for an introvert like me.

When you put yourself in other one's shoes, you try to understand someone else's perspective. Which achieves most of the goals - creating a bond and helping you say/do the right thing(s).

You don't have to share their shoe size.

It's not easy

Putting yourself in other one's shoes is difficult - perhaps even more for an introvert.

It is very hard to do well, as seeing the world from someone else's perspective is only possible when knowing the person really well, and even there, it's just broad strokes. We are all complex beings, driven by (and often stretched between) both intellect and emotions, and the product of our background, education and experience.

Each different characteristic - role, situation, nationality, gender, race, sexual orientation, religion, background, experience, education, etc.. - is a wedge that can increase the width between my perception of a situation and theirs.

So I ask a lot of questions (also because I am intellectually curious!). And I listen with the intent of making a mental picture of that person.

It will not be a perfect picture, but the closer I get, the better I will be at doing and saying the right things.

This is also why in Sales, the common advice is that "you should listen more than you speak". The goal is to understand the prospect's perspective first and foremost. Only then can you find how your product or service can help that person, and position it in a light that will be appealing.

An approach for a better world

Trying to put yourself systematically (and not just selectively) in other one's shoes leads almost naturally to "Treat people like you would want to be treated". Because once you see the world from their perspective, it is hard to do things you know you would not like yourself in their position.

And as mentioned, focusing on understanding the other's perspective is good enough. Sharing their feeling is optional - while great if genuine, it can also be counterproductive if faked.

Doing this has definitely been a significant contributor to my success, both in Sales and in leadership positions. But also contributing to what I find to be a more balanced and peaceful world view - there is always two sides to any story.

I believe the world would be a better place if we tried more to put ourselves in other one's shoes.

It would lead to better leaders, better managers, better politics, and overall a better understanding and respect of each other.