I think a lot about parenting. I am fascinated and saddened by how much parents, in spite of their best intentions, can really lead their kids astray and cause a lot of psychological baggage that is hard to overcome.

Parents have a tendency to advise and problem solve for their kids as if they were them. They are applying the “walk a mile in their shoes” type of empathy. After thinking about this further, I realized how problematic the “walk a mile in their shoes” cliche happens to be. By imagining yourself in someone else’s shoes, you end up just thinking about what YOU would do in their context. You project your experiences, beliefs, values, biases, concerns, and anxieties onto another person’s prospective situation. The worse part of this is that YOU walk away thinking that this was helpful. Not only is this not helpful, it is BAD listening.

“Listening goes beyond simply hearing what people say. It also involves paying attention to how they say it and what they do while they are saying it, in what context, and how what they say resonates within you. It’s not about merely holding your peace while someone else holds forth. Quite the opposite. A lot of listening has to do with how you respond–the degree to which you facilitate the clear expression of another person’s thoughts and, in the process, crystalize your own. Good listeners ask good questions.”

Kate Murphy

Instead of envisioning yourself in someone’s else’s shoes, ask what size, color, and kind of shoe he or she plans to wear. In doing so you are in effect asking: what’s the real challenge here for you? What do you want? and how can I help?

And then, LISTEN… really, really, LISTEN. Paraphrase and reflect what you’ve heard to seek confirmation that you are accurately internalizing the thoughts, feelings, perspectives, and uncertainties that someone else is wrestling with. Remember, lean towards being more helpful than thorough .

When under pressure and dealing with uncertainty, we all tend to be, especially as kids, very impressionable. The advice we receive, regardless of its merit or contextual relevancy, often feels more safe and reliable than the uncertainty of our own thoughts and feelings. Therefore, it behooves everyone listening, including parents, to be sensitive to the state someone is in when seeking support, counsel, advise, mentorship, and/or just someone with which to vent.

There is a tremendous opportunity for all of us, especially parents, to re-think what it means to “walk a mile in someone else’s shoes.” Instead, I propose we let whomever it is keep their shoes on, and we walk alongside them showing our support in a manner of unconditional, neutral, positive regard.

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