On August 20, 2015

Putting Yourself in Another’s Shoes — and Finding They Don’t Fit

How well do we really know our customers?  In a recent Op Ed piece in the New York Times titled “Imagining the Lives of Others” (6/7/15), psychologist Paul Bloom cautions us not to rely too heavily on our ability to sense how other people think.  Bloom argues, in fact, that “People are often highly confident in their ability to see things as others do, but their attempts are typically barely better than chance.  Other studies,” he continues, “find that people who are instructed to take the perspectives of others tend to do worse, not better, at judging their thoughts and emotions.”

Ouch!  Here I thought I was a pretty empathetic guy, tuned in and sensitive to other people’s thoughts and opinions.  Bloom cites several studies that reach the same conclusion about our ability to stand in another person’s shoes: “we’re not good at it.”

Two recommendations that Bloom does make regarding this issue are actually quite practical, and make good sense.  The first is to arm ourselves with some humility when we try to peer into the minds of people perhaps different from us.  The second is simply to “focus more on listening to what they have to say,” instead of jumping to conclusions or assuming we know what we don’t.

One way to be more disciplined in listening to others is of course to deploy different kinds of opinion research to find out what people actually do think about a particular issue.  People like your customers, prospective customers, even ex-customers – as well as other important stakeholders like competitors or allies.  Using research to be surer about accuracy and validity just makes good sense – especially in light of what we’re learning about our own abilities to walk in another’s shoes.

Bob Mai


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