Walk a mile in their shoes

We’ve all heard the much vaunted “don’t judge me until you’ve walked a mile in my shoes” and that’s because it’s the way to improve difficult relationships: you – metaphorically – put yourself in their shoes.

As human beings, we tend to take things personally, and can benefit from the realisation that it’s not always about us. A timely reminder that the world doesn’t revolve solely around our own personal axis – and that much of what happens is absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with us – can be hugely beneficial.

For example, two people sharing the identical experience will…

  • feel it differently
  • describe it differently
  • react to it differently
  • be affected differently

Yet the experiences of both will be entirely authentic and valid.

I’ve long had a tricky relationship with my mother. Some people have suggested that we’re too alike (our birthdays are only two days apart) but the truth is that we’re too far apart on the important stuff like values. So when I was doing my NLP training, that tricky relationship provided the ideal source material to try out a technique I was learning, which is all about putting yourself into their shoes, to get a fresh perspective.

And I have to say it was a remarkably eye opening experience. The thing is that I didn’t learn anything new, I just I looked at what I knew, and I paid attention to it – properly, possibly for the first time. With new eyes, I examined how I might feel if those were my feelings, my fears, my thoughts – and it provided me with an insight into my mother’s behaviour.

Did it transform our relationship? Yes. Did it completely heal it? No. That would’ve required change on both our parts, and my mother isn’t interested in change – in fact, she’s positively terrified of it. Nevertheless, by choosing to put myself in her shoes, it meant I was able to eliminate the tension while living in her house in order to care for my father during his dementia years. And I am hugely grateful for that.

Returning to the pink shoes in the header – they’re exactly the type of shoes my mother would’ve had in her wardrobe – except for the colour. She likes a peep toe, and that bow on the front would’ve been right up her street. Whereas I did have a pair in that colour (if not pearlescent) but they were a classic court, with a pointed toe and a 6-inch stiletto heel. When I gave up wearing high heels, my daughter made a grab for them, fighting off her flatmates to the prize. So, mother & daughters – alike and different 🙂

How do you deal with those tricky relationships in your life – you know, the awkward work colleague, the difficult in-law, your nearest & dearest’s annoying best friend? Have you ever tried putting yourself in someone else’s shoes as a technique to problem solve?

© Debra Carey, 2023

28 thoughts on “Walk a mile in their shoes

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  1. I’ve put myself in others shoes, but if they’re not doing the same about me, it’s still hard to have a dialogue…I recently got into a war of words with someone because they just couldn’t see things through the eyes of someone who is a parent…but you just gave me a great idea for a post so thank you

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  2. Any attempts at dialogue with my mother generally ended in frustration (mine) and gloating (her). But on the basis of accepting that we can only change ourselves and not make someone else change, it enabled me to understand what was behind her actions so we could work together to care for my Dad. That’s one of the problem of only seeing things through our own perspective, it’s easy for things to escalate.

    I’m glad to have provided you with a post idea 😉

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  3. There were many times my actions were misunderstood by my mother when I was a child, and sometimes by teachers, too. I’ve never forgotten the shame of being punished nor the injustice of being disciplined without ever getting to tell my side of the story. That’s always stuck with me; I usually try and give someone a chance to explain how they experienced our interactions before confronting them or telling them off or cutting them out of my life (if I can). And I try and remember that when I get upset over something my son said or did.

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  4. My problem is that I have put myself in other people’s shoes too much, and end up giving them all kinds of grace for way they treat me because of it. This is where boundaries come in, and I’m having some success at getting better at those…


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  5. I try to avoid conflicts. I did a disservice to our kids by putting myself in my husband’s shoes but neglecting theirs. I now talk a lot about perspective and how what one person says may not be the same way the listener hears it. It is a delicate balance.

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  6. What a constructive approach, Debs, although not always easy, especially as a two-way exercise. I try to do this with someone in my family; it helps me calm down about actions/remarks from that person that don’t make sense to me and helps me not react/overreact so as to not provoke a negative outcome. Sigh.

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  7. Gosh Autumn, maybe that’s why this technique resonated with me – all those times in childhood that I’d been misunderstood and not listened to. Lucky D having you understand this and know the importance of using this tool.

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  8. Funny thing Deb, I previously had a paragraph about that very thing in my original draft, but somewhere along the line, it got edited out. So thank you for raising it – they do need to walk hand-in-hand. My relationship with my mother has never been better than since she moved to the US to live with my sister! 😀

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  9. So tricky to be in that situation Janet, and so great that you had the self-awareness to see that it had happened and the impact it had. Perspective is such a huge issue, and not just in writing.

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  10. Thanks Jane, it is. It clearly can’t solve everything, but it does ease tension and allow you to cope. Since my Mum has moved to the US to live with my sister, I suffer from less anger and frustrating, and find myself swearing so much less! 😉 But until her move, it was a godsend for there was a huge amount of family conflict for which I was the moderator.

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  11. Not always easy to do when you have a kid who doesn’t always want to share/ verbalize his feelings. But I try. Though I may just be giving him ways to make excuses? Parenting is the least exact science.

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  12. For me the question would be more like: When haven’t I put myself in someone else’s shoes as a technique to problem solve? I am empathetic and observant and geared to solving problems. It comes naturally to me to think about how someone else feels or thinks or behaves, then deal accordingly.

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  13. My mom and dad were both easy to get along with. My sister and I comment sometimes about how lucky we were to have them as parents. My oldest daughter’s husband can be hard to get along with sometimes. I should try more often to put myself in his shoes. After they moved to the Seattle area three years, I imagine he has sometimes felt a little overwhelmed to have so much of her family around when his family is back in New Jersey.

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  14. Nicki, you’ve demonstrated how it can help so beautifully in your comment. It’s not a permanent fix, or a solution, but it can help to ease tension – and ever little bit less of that in our lives is a bonus I find 🙂


  15. Ally, it’s so clear that you speak as a natural empath. I’ve always been more of a talk it out problem solver, but this is one which I was grateful to have when the talking solution hasn’t worked. Maybe I should’ve met you sooner – you could’ve pointed me in that direction!

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  16. Isn’t it just? My daughter just shared with me that my granddaughter is suddenly suffering from nerves on stage, after loving performing, and asked if it was something she went through. She didn’t, but I did. And my daughter does parenting WAY better than I ever did. There’s simply no being able to always account for the outcome.

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  17. I’ve been taking a class for people supporting someone with mental illness, and one of my biggest take-aways is an acronym for communication called LEAP: Listen, empathize, agree, partner. It was developed as a tool for communicating with those who have delusions, but I think it’s pretty spot-on for communicating with anyone. They talked about how distressing it must be to have delusions and know that no one else accepts your reality. And though a person’s reality might not be what most of us consider true, their feelings within it are. Once someone feels that a person has truly listened to them and understands their feelings, it is so much easier to reach agreement. The A doesn’t mean you have to agree with everything the other person believes; it’s about working to find goals you can both agree upon. It’s a nice way to sidestep the whole different realities thing. I’m using this with an adult child who is struggling, and I think it’s helping him to stay connected with me, rather than shutting me out.

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  18. My mother-in-law, with whom I had a very bad relationship, would have loved those pink shoes too. So would my granddaughter (aged 6) whom I love dearly.
    Putting yourself in their shoes is great advice. A line manager said something similar to me many years ago and it has helped me in work relationships. But as you found it has to be 2 way to make a real difference.

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  19. Rosemary, it’s true it cannot provide a total solution for an issue when the other person isn’t interested in understanding or working with you. One proviso I wished I’d remember to include which got lost in the editing process, was that some people are toxic and no amount of understanding or walking in their shoes will help, so then one has to rely on really good, strong boundaries.


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