It’s hard to stand in someone else’s shoes when you’re in conflict with them. It can feel too close, like you’re being asked to stop being you and try to be them for a moment. Here’s an alternative that’s easier to pull off and as familiar to you as going to the movies.
You’ve just scored tickets for the latest Star Wars film. You settle into your seat, popcorn in hand, and the opening music begins.
Chewbacca appears on the screen.
This is stupid! you yell. You stand up, grab your coat, and begin to stalk out of the theatre angrily. What a waste of my time! There is no such thing as a wookiee!
You don’t do that, of course (I hope). You stay put. You suspend your disbelief. You watch the movie. Later, as you’re filing out of the theatre, you re-adopt your disbelief about the existence of wookiees (I hope).
Suspending your disbelief isn’t just good for movie watching. It’s good in conflict, too.
And it’s easier than trying to stand in their shoes or put yourself in their position. Those attempts feel like they’re asking you to suspend your belief and adopt theirs. That’s hard to do in conflict.
But suspending your disbelief for a little while, knowing you can return to it later if you want, that’s not as hard. You know what it feels like because you’ve done it a hundred times before, each time you go to the movies.
There’s even a name for the technique: Get into their movie.
Rebecca Shafir, author of The Zen of Listening: Mindful Communication in the Age of Distraction, coined the term. Says Shafir,
In real life, speakers often invite us to get into their movies with comments like, ‘Do you see it my way?’ or ‘Put yourself in my place.’ If we approach a listening opportunity with the same self-abandonment as we do at the movies, think of how much more we stand to gain from those encounters.
Practice getting into their movie outside of conflict situations so you’ll be better able to do it under stress. It’s good at the dinner table when you can’t for the life of you understand why your teen thinks the way she does. It’s fabulous over the phone when your mother-in-law is telling you all about her favorite political candidate (the one you dislike so much). It’s terrific at the conference table when a colleague who mystifies you is going on and on about something.