Putting Yourself in Another’s Shoes Doesn’t Work

Dale Carnegie was wrong; what to do instead

Dale Carnegie’s still-influential 1936 book, How to Win Friends and Influence People, got only one main thing wrong.

So says writer, researcher, and thinker Eric Barker, who wrote Barking Up the Wrong Tree: The Surprising Science Behind Why Everything You Know About Success Is (Mostly) Wrong (2017). He’s promoting his second book now, Plays Well with Others: The Surprising Science Behind Why Everything You Know About Relationships Is (Mostly) Wrong (2022).

In a recent email newsletter, Barker noted that most of the principles laid out by Carnegie over eight decades ago have since been supported by social science research — with one notable exception: “Try honestly to see things from the other person’s point of view.” While we may have empathy and mindsight, it turns out that humans stink at taking another’s point of view.

What Does Work? What’s better than thinking you know what another person is thinking? Barker’s email didn’t say, but based on the fundamentals of coaching and commonsense, I’m going to say it’s this:

Asking others about themselves and what they’re thinking. That is it. Don’t assume, presume, pre-judge, categorize, stereotype, or even sympathize or empathize before having solid information. Sure, sometimes we’re spot on or in the ballpark, but evidence says not as often as we’d think. It says that we don’t quite get it when we fall back on putting ourselves in someone else’s shoes. Turns out it’s better to remember that we’re all walking different paths.

What Then?

  • Listen. Listen deeply. Listen on multiple levels. With open mind (focused attention on the meaning of their words), open heart (attuned with care to the emotion behind what they’re saying), and open gut (brave enough to really hear what they’re saying and not what you want to hear).

  • Check for understanding by summarizing what you’ve heard and asking clarifying questions.

  • Tap into your genuine curiosity. Avoid shopworn phrasing and the things you think you’re supposed to say. Instead, respectfully ask people what you want to know about them, what interests you. Inquire about their perspective and their experience, how they’re feeling, and what they think.

  • Come with and stay in a conversation with good intention — from a place of care, generosity, humor, love, attention, or other standpoint of value. Be the person you want to be and show up to meet the other person where they’re at.

Asking Without Presumption Asking without presumption sounds like…

  • I’m not sure I understand, can you explain that?

  • You seem down (sad, confused, agitated, pissed off, etc.), what’s up?

  • What is that like?

  • I never thought about it like that, what do you think about….?

  • I think you’re saying that…

  • That’s very interesting (intriguing, cool, fascinating, surprising, etc.)…

  • That’s not what I was expecting to hear, tell me more…

From the Other Person’s Shoes What is your asking and listening like for the other person?

  • It is the experience of being seen — as an individual, as themselves.

  • It is the experience of being heard — as an individual, as themselves.

  • The experience of being seen and heard is validating — as an individual, as themselves.

  • It is an affirmation of their person, their sense of themselves, and their value.

  • It can feel like comfort, ease, and safety.

  • It can feel like care, concern, respect, acceptance, affection, and/or appreciation.

A Multi-Layered Gift Accept the challenge of not putting yourself in another’s shoes! Instead, develop a practice of asking others about themselves, their experiences and their perspectives — and then listening.