“We need to dispel the myth that empathy is ‘walking in someone else’s shoes.’ Rather than walking in your shoes, I need to learn how to listen to the story you tell about what it’s like in your shoes and believe you even when it doesn’t match my experiences”
-- Brené Brown, Atlas of the Heart
My favorite part of working with students who are eager to make a positive impact in their communities is the early stages of designing a project, when there is far more energy and enthusiasm than there is a plan. They have settled on an issue or a community they want to help and are brimming with ideas about how to take action.
The reason why I love this part of a project isn’t necessarily because of their energy or abundant ideas, both of which we need for a successful project, but rather because I force students to slow down and ask “What emotions might this [individual or group] be feeling as they struggle with [a particular issue]? And how do we know that is the case?” This seemingly simple question provides not only a powerful lesson in emotional intelligence but also provides a much stronger foundation for designing change.
I’m sure you’ve heard that phrase which Brené Brown mentions in the opening quote: “if you just took the time to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes for a minute, I’m sure you would see things differently” or something to that effect. But is it even possible to walk in someone else’s shoes, to see the world as they see it with all their family history, cultural understanding, socio-economic upbringing, and the breath of emotions that inform those experiences? When I put it like this, walking a mile in someone else’s shoes is not only simplifying a person’s experience but also negates so much of the context that plays into how a person sees and experiences the world around them. It also operates under the idea that our assumptions about what feelings someone may be experiencing are accurate, which is a dangerous assumption that runs counter to emotional intelligence.
Hippos and Understanding Others
In his 2012 TED Talk “Want to Help Someone? Shut Up and Listen” Ernesto Sirolli tells the story of when he worked for an Italian NGO in Zambia. His group was given the mission to educate the Zambian people on farming, something which in retrospect he realizes they needed no help learning. With little interest in helping with the farm, eventually the Italian group paid the Zambian people to cultivate the land and when harvest time finally came, hundreds of hippos emerged from the river eating all of the crops. In utter disbelief the Italians turned to the Zambians asking why they hadn’t told them about the hippos to which they replied “you never asked.”
Whether you find yourself in Zambia cultivating a farm, deciding on how to meet the needs of the growing population of those facing homelessness or notice a close friend withdrawing from her normal bubbly self, emotional intelligence requires that you listen, stay curious, and ask questions rather than charge forward with what you think they need. We simply cannot walk a mile in someone's shoes but we can ask clarifying questions about what walking in those shoes feels like.
A few years ago I worked with students on a project they designed around the growing, and still growing, population of people facing homelessness in Seattle. In slowing down and researching stories with quotes from actual people in this situation, students found that while donations were helpful, it was the emotional isolation from society, the looking away as you walk down the street, that greatly contributed feelings of despair and powerlessness. Through the course of our work we realized the danger of labeling someone’s situation as their identity and changed our language from ‘the homeless’ to ‘those facing homelessness’ to see this community for who they really were, people. By taking them time to research questions they had had about what the experience of homelessness is actually like, they were able to modify their original concept and add in a piece that was sensitive to the feelings of the people they hoped to help. Instead of a food collection, students initiated several fundraisers to purchase the most desired items for care packages which students were then invited to deliver to those in their own community facing homelessness, creating a connection and promoting the human dignity of those who are often ignored and isolated.
How to Help Students Understand Others
If student projects are going to succeed, and all that energy for justice is not wasted, the projects need to begin by asking questions that promote emotional intelligence. Here are a few to get you and your classes going:
Whose situation are we trying to improve?
What about that situation is making it difficult for those most affected by it?
What might they be thinking and feeling as they struggle with this situation?
What needs of this community are not being met?
But most importantly when you engage students in these questions we need to ask: how do we know this is true? Push students to interview people within the community who they are trying to help and listen to their stories. If this isn’t fully possible, research different organizations doing similar work or find articles where thoughts and feelings of the community are expressed. Make sure students can back up their answers to those questions with primary sources, otherwise they run the risk of creating an elaborate project…only to have it eaten by hippos!