We are famously egocentric creatures, instinctively judging situations from our own perspective without taking into account other people’s. But if we trouble to engage with others, to empathise and discuss, we stand to make better decisions and create a society that is kinder to live in.
I have some practical experience of this process in the course of my outreach work with Extinction Rebellion, whereby we try to engage with the public in a discussion on the climate crisis and what should be done about it. We recently set up a table in a public space in the city centre, covered it with a striking pink cloth, loaded it with eye-catching leaflets, surrounded it with brightly coloured flags and pinned badges on ourselves. Then, having got the attention of a number of passers-by, rather than preach at them we made a point of listening to their stories. In this way, we attempted to close the gap between ‘us’ and ‘them’ and unite under common cause. We do not make the assumption that everyone is familiar with the science of climate change.
Behavioural scientists have studied the phenomenon they call ‘the curse of knowledge’, whereby someone with knowledge that another hasn’t finds it difficult to understand what it was like not to have this knowledge and to act differently. They have conducted numerous experiments to demonstrate the phenomenon but, from a layperson’s experience, we have all come across instructions for setting up tech or furniture, for example. They are often written by people adept and experienced at doing these things and as such, contain assumptions that are not necessarily obvious to those of us without that experience. Hence they are not always helpful.
And, illustrating the point further, there is a new feature in the revamped Guardian magazine – Dining Across the Divide – which brings ordinary people together over a meal to explore their differences, tell their stories and find common ground. How refreshing and interesting it is to read as an antidote to so much polarising content found elsewhere in the media. A couple of lovely takeaways from the diners:
“don’t accept labels in the easy binary divisions that are presented to us – it was a lovely evening”
“it has reinforced my belief that people are generally nice”
If we step into other shoes, would we be inclined to make different decisions? The most straight forward test of this is to check how what we say is being received and to listen actively to others. Hearing each other’s stories invites us to experience the world from the other’s perspective. Not for nowhere comes the old saying to ‘stand in someone else’s shoes’.
So, whose shoes are you going to try on this coming week? Me, I’ll be back on the streets again on Friday.