Shoes off, feat accomplished!

April 29, 2012

Getting into the shoes of each other is an exercise, which some facilitators do in communication workshops. I saw this for the first time when Dr. Benjamin Lozare of the Johns Hopkins University did it with us in a workshop. I have been doing it since then and find it very effective. It goes like this: get two volunteers to come up and ask them to get into each other’s shoes.  It takes them a while to start. They have known it as a phrase but haven’t really thought about it in practical terms. The exercise provides very useful insights on effective listening.

Some people attempt to get into the other person’s shoes without taking off their own. It does not work and makes the message clear:  take off your own shoes first, if you want to get into someone’s shoes. Often we don’t listen well because we are preoccupied with our own thoughts.

Some people don’t make an attempt as they believe they have a different shoe size and any effort will be in vain. Just like the difference in shoe sizes is a hindrance in allowing people to get into the shoes of each other, difference in age, gender, experience and perceptions between speaker and receiver becomes a barrier in effective communication. This explains the challenges of communication between parents and children, men and women, teacher and student, boss and his employees and many more situations.

What do we do then to be a good listener despite these very practical challenges? Instead of criticizing the speaker, a practical thing would be to remember taking off our shoes and make an attempt to listen. And then, listen for information that is important and useful to us. We may be able to find it invariably. James Nathan Miller summarizes it very well. “There is no such thing as a worthless conversation, provided you know what to listen for. And questions are the breath of life for a conversation.”