Theory of Mind and Other People’s Shoes

Compassion is a key part of empathy. I believe any person’s ability to be compassionate or to practice empathy is completely dependent on one’s ability to step in to another’s shoes, or even beyond. In a lot of communication training, especially associated with Neuro Linguistic Programming (NLP), this is translated in to first, second and third positions adopted. First position is where I see a situation or perceive through my own eyes, my own experience and beliefs. Second position entails the ability to put myself in to the other person’s shoes – for example in an argument or disagreement. Third position goes even further and entails the ability to float above the situation and both me and you’ to see the situation, to hear the communication and perceive the surface and deep level emotions on all sides from the position of a third party – a person who can see the situation without direct emotions related to it, the archetypal fly on the wall’.

One of the things that has been clear from research for some time is that not every person grows up with the same levels of empathy. Secondly, there is a growing body of evidence that empathy can be taught and a belief that ultimately we will prepare people for a better future (and maybe even contribute to a better world for all). I find that, all too often, one meets leaders (let alone others) who lack the ability to move to second position, let alone third position. Some may have lost the ability out of habit and some might never have really had it. Some seem to fear that taking anything other than first position will lead to them being perceived as weak, vulnerable in their leadership. The truth is really quite the reverse. The most effective leader is a listener, has the humility to admit when wrong and to adopt another’s position. Also, if we are unable or unwilling to step in to second position we will always struggle to understand the acceptability or otherwise of decisions we make.

As I’ve touched on in a number of other articles, we’ve seen some fascinating and intriguing discoveries over the last few years as a result of MRI scanning technology and the ability to understand what is happening in the developing human brain. As the following article explains, we now know what is happening in the brain of a young child at the time that they are developing a sense of ‘other-ness’, the sense that leads to the ability to see the perspective of others and to empathise. In time, I hope that this will lead to greater refinement of our understanding about how and when to teach empathy, to increase the level of social emotional skills of more children. However, I also believe that we will likely learn in time that there are some negative impacts and influences to be avoided or minimised, as well as positive habits and skills to be taught if we are to enhance the empathy levels of children.

Greater Good – Berkeley – What Happens in a Child’s Brain When They Learn to Empathize?

This is certainly a fascinating field of study to be followed in the future.

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