Walk a Mile in My Shoes, Then Give Them Back

Listen. Do not have an opinion while you listen because frankly, your opinion doesn’t hold much water outside of Your Universe. Just listen. Listen until their brain has been twisted like a dripping towel and what they have to say is all over the floor.         ~ Hugh Elliott

One of the great stumbling blocks to grace is that it’s so very hard to listen. When I lack empathy, it’s because I can’t imagine your pain, grief, suffering, choices etc…. And there’s a perfectly good explanation for that. I can’t imagine it because I’m not you.

One of the well-meaning lies we utter is I know how you feel. We never know. We really need to stop saying that. And more importantly, we need to stop thinking it. Nothing in our life, even in rare cases when we seem to be on somewhat parallel paths, has prepared us to know how another person feels. While we are very well versed in our opinions, we hardly know our own feelings.

I respect the intent of the Native American proverb: Don’t judge a man until you have walked a mile in his shoes. It’s a plea to stop judging and become more empathetic. When I attempt to understand how you feel by removing my shoes and trying to walk around in yours it looks something like this:

If I’d grown up in that environment…

If I’d been treated that way…

If I had made that decision…

If I’d been so inclined…

Can you see the problem? I’m trying understand how you feel by thinking about me. In reality, nothing from our DNA to our daily life experiences, is similar enough for me to have a clue about how you feel by imagining how I think I might feel or what I think I might do or not do if I were you, because I don’t know and because I’m not.

Being funny, some have added to the proverb… That way, you are a mile away from them and have their shoes. In reality, that’s just what happens. If I insist on turning my imaginary, or even my similar experience, into your experience, I’ve just moved a mile away from you.

If you want to know how my shoes feel and you wear a woman’s 8 1/2, you’re welcome to walk a mile in them. If you’re interested in knowing how I feel, kick off your shoes, sit back and listen. I promise to do the same. We can meet then where judgement ends and grace begins.

Author: Debbie

A former counselor and public speaker, I'm grateful for many, many things - God's grace most of all!

47 thoughts on “Walk a Mile in My Shoes, Then Give Them Back”

  1. Mmm! You’ve hit the nail on the head in a way I’ve never heard before. Thank you for your insights. My relationships in the past year have really challenged me to listen and not automatically assume that I understand what someone is feeling. Lately, this has progressed to the point where I feel the Spirit prompting me to avoid eagerly informing the person I’m hearing that “we are so alike” or “I know exactly what you mean” (as in, I’ve experienced the same trial, joy etc). The reality is that I can’t reasonably claim any of these things.

    You gave me the next revelation on the path to genuine relating with others on the basis of more than me:

    “Can you see the problem? I’m trying understand how you feel by thinking about me. In reality, nothing from our DNA to our daily life experiences, is similar enough for me to have a clue about how you feel by imagining how I think I might feel or what I think I might do or not do if I were you, because I don’t know and because I’m not.”

  2. I really like what you wrote. Listening, really listening, is such a valuable gift one can give to a spouse, a child, a friend or just someone in the grocery lineup next to you. It is my prayer to continue growing in this area because I desire it and need it. Thank you.

    1. Wendy –
      OK, I like you already! 😀
      Anyone who says I desire and need to grow steps right into my heart.
      Welcome to TMG. Thank you for sharing a bit of your heart.
      ~ Debbie

  3. i really like this – both the idea behind the you can’t really understand so don’t say you do and the focus on really listening [as opposed to preparing my answer while you are still busy talking] and then just presencing yourself with the person, taking some time and seeing where it goes to from there – very powerful. thank you.

    1. brett –
      Welcome to TMG and thanks for taking the time to leave a comment.
      I think we typically spend a great deal of our ‘listening’ in a mental courtroom – either preparing an argument for the prosecution or one for the defense.
      Just being present (really present) with another person, even one we like quite a lot,is one of the hardest and kindest gifts we give each other. Thank you for highlighting that!
      ~ Debbie

    1. Thank you, Pastor J –
      Listening is very hard. Setting aside our preconceptions and our assumptions that we know the thoughts and feelings of another is a gift of great price that few give.
      When I was counseling, people would come in who didn’t really need much direction and say: “It’s worth $125 an hour (what the agency charged, not what I made) just to have someone who will really listen to me. That, my friend, is a sad statement that reflects on almost all of us.
      ~ Debbie

    1. Hello and a warm welcome to TMG.
      You know the old saying: If the shoe fits, wear it.
      Sounds like you’re comfortable in yours! 😉
      ~ Debbie

  4. I read this the day you posted. I was guilty. I had just returned from a visitation for a younger girl in the office who lost her father. I’ve lost three and said those words “I understand.” After reading this, I realized….I really don’t. Each of my loses was different. She and I are different. Relationships are different and all we can do is really just be there for them. Very good words Debbie.

  5. Debbie, you are an angel in human form. Grace is to be had right here.

    So true that we can not really understand someone else’s pain. I think we can get a glimpse and empathize with that person when we have been through the same thing, but it is still different for others then what we went through.

    A totally unrelated example that ties in with this…think about problem solving. Different people come up with different solutions, why? Because we all look at the same things, in a different way. It is no different with our feelings…we all FEEL differently.

    Great blog, keep’im coming!
    Blessings and love to you

    1. Dear Greg –
      Problem solving is a great example.
      To draw it out – in a professional setting, when one person’s solution is the only solution all the time, they are labeled a “Know-it-All”.
      In 20+ years of training folks in “people skills”, a Know-it-All was dis-liked in the workplace, 2nd only to a Liar.
      A lesson then to carry over from a professional setting to a personal one:
      No two people ever experience any moment in exactly the same way.
      That’s part of the joy of being “fearfully and wonderfully made”!
      Empathy doesn’t assume I know how you feel because I’ve been there.
      Empathy asks, how do you feel – because I want to travel with you.
      Thank you, Greg, for your kind words and for being my friend,
      ~ Debbie

      1. “Empathy asks, how do you feel – because I want to travel with you.” – what a beautiful way to describe empathy! I love this! 🙂

  6. Changing the words, “I know how you feel” to “I think I understand just a little of what you must be feeling – can you talk about it?” … makes a huge difference. It shows support and empathy without assuming you know what the other person is feeling, and encourages the other person to open up a little more …. at least, that approach has usually worked for me and is normally acceptable to the other person. Wonderful and very helpful post. ~ Julie xoxox

    1. Hello Julie –
      Thank you for telling me to go looking for you! You were right where you said you’d be!
      If I had 600 words instead of 300, I would have talked about asking.
      No, we don’t know how someone feels – ever.
      The obvious thing to do, one might think, would be to ask – as you so gently put it.
      The easy thing to do is assume, which, of course is not only amazingly arrogant, but also minimizing.
      Your friends are blessed to have found such a wise listener,
      ~ Debbie

      1. Deb, thank you so much for retrieving me! 🙂 I think part of the reason I always ‘ask’, is that no one ever ‘asked’ me, and I know how that feels. I never want anyone to feel that way when talking to me. Even if I can’t help someone, I want them to know without a doubt that I care about them and as you brilliantly put it, “because I want to travel with them” … no one should feel so alone in their lives. Sending you love and hugs this beautiful Saturday! ~ Julie xoxox

      2. Julie –
        How very tender of you to give so freely what you were never given.
        love and grace to you, my new friend,
        ~ Debbie

    1. Susie –
      As our friend Debby calls it, it’s living in grace land!
      I can’t think of a better place to live until we get to go Home!
      ~ Debbie

  7. Thank you Gracious one, for showing us what we do . . .and then what grace does. Grace just listens and loves and leaves the shoes off so no one’s toes get stepped on or pinched. By the way, that’s what YOU do. 🙂 God bless you every step of the way! love and prayers . . .your barefoot now other deb

    1. Dearest Deb –
      “Grace just listens and loves and leaves the shoes off so no one’s toes get stepped on or pinched.”
      That’s beautiful, my barefoot friend … and so VERY like you!
      ~ Debbie

  8. Oh Debbie, this is perfect. When I went through infertility, I had everybody telling me what they would do. It was terrible. I had such little support. Everyone knew exactly what I should do because THEY would’ve done it. If the infertility experience did anything for me, it taught me to do what you said here ….. listen, and to add in a few hugs along the way.

    1. Dear Lori –
      Such a beautiful response from you to such a hurtful experience.
      Don’t you wonder what all we might learn from each other if we would listen and hug instead of lecture and “help”?
      love and grace to you,
      ~ Debbie

  9. A M A Z I N G GRACE, never written, sung or shouted from the rooftops better. OH HOW THIS SPEAKETHS TO ME!!! This is a VERY freeing, and important post! So well thought out, and SO ABOUT ME! Kidding. It’s about all us “ME’S” out there!

    We all judge, don’t we? Or try to fix stuff that we think we know all about … as if it’s our job??? Or someone asked us to fix them???

    I think, in some ways, it’s a phenomenon that occurs in order to “center” ourselves, somehow. Or protect ourselves, or to make ourselves feel better than someone else. Sometimes it’s something we do because we don’t know what the heck to do for someone, and we CANNOT know what their shoes are like. So we try to do a “third” party comfort thingy.

    BUT, we also “nice” too much. Like, i know how you feel (exactly) … i don’t think we ever say exactly … but the insinuation is there.. Maybe we could say, I hear you. But somehow, that seems dismissive.

    I think there is some value in “validating” someone’s pain that is not condescending (as if i really have walked in this or that one’s shoes”) but touches their heart so they don’t feel alone.

    But as far as making a judgment about who, or what they SHOULD feel, what they SHOULD DO, or what they SHOULD have done … or HOW THE HELL did they get in THAT place … that’s not grace at all. That is unGrace.

    Very, very, very enlightening. Food for thought.

    Boy, us humans, we are a CENTRALIZED LOT aren’t we. Hey, “you’re born alone you die alone” perhaps that’s the sad, (un-spiritual, subconscious) mantra that rings the truest in our being. Dunno.

    Love you, Deb … this is brilliant! Sorry for the babbling. There may be a point in there somewhere! xo mel

    1. Dear Mel –
      I don’t think there’s just a point here (in your comments), there’s an entire post! 😀
      In our rush to try to comfort or to fix, we end up patronizing and minimizing with statements like I know how you feel.
      And how often is that very sentence then used as an excuse for the “listener to become the talker – telling their own story (which, by implication, is ever so much more interesting/dramatic/tragic/intense etc… than yours).

      We are a self-centered and “CENTRALIZED LOT” – I completely agree.
      I think that’s the essence of why we’re such poor listeners. We can’t get ourselves out of view enough to really see another.
      Thank you for always laying it out there! I love that about you!
      So, along with our other friends here, I say we kick off our shoes and hang out together. You know where to meet! 😉
      love you, too,
      ~ Debbie

      1. LOL, Debbie, yes, size 6 feet … considering I’m only 4′ 10″, I’d look pretty silly if they were much larger, hehehe. I used to take a size 5, but with so many health issues and medications, I gained a lot of weight – and yes, your feet fluctuate in size with the rest of you … sigh … LOL. 😀

      2. Julie –
        Sounds like your feet and your body are a perfect match!
        You look taller in your picture – 5’2″ easy. 😉
        ~ Debbie

  10. Simply beautiful, Dear Debbie!!

    “We can meet then where judgement ends and grace begins.”
    I have a feeling this is somewhere at Calvary … 😉

    Sometimes the “I know how you feel” statement can be truly painful (and could really appear hypocritical) to the recipient. How can we really know how someone feels, unless we have lived it?

    I smiled at the comical twist. Lying to their face and then stealing their shoes as well. 🙂 I smile, but God help those of us who are guilty of having done just that.

    I’m heading over to the place “where judgement ends and grace begins.” …

    Blessings and thanks

    1. Dear Ann –
      I always know where to look for you!
      You seem to be parked at the very spot where judgement ends and grace begins.
      I love that about you!
      ~ Debbie

  11. “I’m trying understand how you feel by thinking about me.” Brilliant explanation of why it doesn’t work. It doesn’t.

    Listening is so much harder than thinking about myself, which I find is difficult to stop doing, anyway. I would love to be a great listener. I think being heard is one of the greatest gifts of the heart that we can give. Being understood is nearly miraculous in it’s impact, in part because it’s just that–it hardly ever happens.

    Thank you for the inspiration. I needed this.

    1. Heidi –
      There are so many sayings like this that have a grain of truth.
      But then, you know what happens when you get a grain of truth stuck in your shoe – it “rubs you wrong”. 😉
      Isn’t it funny how much we talk about how important is it to listen?!
      And there you have it!
      Thank you, as always, for adding your wise words,
      ~ Debbie

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