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“Just for A Moment, Stand in Their Shoes”

Updated: Jun 24, 2021

Photo by Andrew Neel on

On inauguration day, Joe Biden, quoting his mother, asked us to stand in another’s shoes, if just for moment. He asked for empathy. While my work at Empathy Sandbox is just starting, for the last 12 years, I have been dedicated to teaching empathy as a means of ensuring we have teams that are, not only successful, but joyful. I want to support teams that create the trust, respect and connection that is vital to innovation and overcoming challenges. On Wednesday, we inaugurated a president who clearly effuses this quality. It seems a good time to talk about why we all need to develop our empathy muscle, and why on Tuesday, when then president-elect Biden stood in front of the reflection pool to ask us all to remember the over 400,000 lives lost to Covid, it reminded us how much we value and need empathy.

Empathy with those we serve is vital, but it is also essential to practice empathy with those we work withour teams! So, yes, I do feel comforted to see a president who exhibited empathy for the American people, but I am looking for how he will use empathy to work with others. Clearly, our 46th president has endured much loss, which has enabled his heart to walk alongside others who have suffered, but the empathy that allows teams to thrive does not require that we know another’s pain, but that we want to try to understand others. Moreover, compassionate empathy calls us to use that knowledge to act upon our attempts at understanding in hopes of lifting others up and gaining perspective.

How do we do this? Compassionate empathy requires vulnerability, trust, integrity, deep listening and respect (all loaded words, worthy of their own separate articles), and it fuels understanding, connection, voice, and growth. It is a bit of cycle – the more vulnerable and respectful you are, the more empathy can grow. The more you try to exhibit empathy, the more trust and respect will flourish. Empathy is evidenced when we act based off of a hope to understand someone’s life, fears, happiness, sadness, and needs. Attempts in empathy may be rejected, miss the mark (you tried to understand, but, in fact, you misunderstood) or may not reach those it is intended for, but we still must try. Movement will never occur without those who are willing to show empathy, even when it is most difficult to do so. Some of our most empathetic presidents have been those who got us out of times of deep crisis (Lincoln, FDR). Acting when people are greatly divided or when there is a chance of being rejected or being wrong, requires great humility. President Biden appears to lack hubris. His humility allows for trust where people are at the center of all decisions (the people he works with and the people he serves). People joke at his folksiness, but I think what these colloquialisms do is say that I am one of you. I have a job, and so do you, and all work is important. The work of a team or relationship is never just about one person; it is always about what can be uniquely accomplished together. It is about a desire to move forward, to get to a different place, to do the right thing, even when it is hard. Empathy inherently lacks cynicism and rings in hope. This was the messaging of the inauguration.

When I see (then President-elect) Biden cry over the trust Delaware has placed in him, it is clear that he takes nothing for granted. It is a recognition that no one reaches great outcomes without reliance on the strength of others. Every person brings something essential. When our leaders recognize this, it is an acknowledgement that they are just one person on a team, and without the whole team working together, we are less than. Everyone must help our teammates’ thrive through empathy. Together, embracing our differences as well as our similarities, we create the possibility for greatest outcomes. What happens in those moments when teams thrive is connection, something all human are programmed to need. This connection, or unity, can only happen through shared vulnerability, growing trust and an ongoing commitment to “Just for a moment, stand in their shoes.” (President Joseph R. Biden, Inauguration address, 2021, Jan. 20).

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