Superior Communication:
It’s All In The Shoes

By Julie Grass


Management Consulting + Training



Training yourself to see someone else’s perspective takes practice.  Here are a couple of scenarios you might want to think through: 

  1. Imagine you are a brand new CEO in a small company.  What do you think is going on in the heads of the management team?  Are they worried that you may replace them with your own team?  Are any of them resentful because they thought they deserved the position?  Are they excited because you bring new strengths and can make the company more profitable?  Once you know what they are likely feeling, you can determine the most compelling way to approach them.

  2. Imagine you are the Director of Programs at a large non-profit.  You are about to present a proposal to enhance one of the programs which will require monies not currently in your budget.  Anticipate your meeting with the CFO.  What will likely be going on in her head?  What will her objections be?  She might be more receptive if you can show her how this enhancement will pay for itself within two years.  Perhaps you can find some appropriate grants to apply for so that this financial burden will not fall on the agency.  By anticipating her response, you can prepare for it.  Chances of getting your proposal through will increase exponentially.

  3. Think of a specific colleague or client who is consistently challenging.  Without judgment, look at the situation from that individuals’ perspective.  Why might he be resistant?  What feelings or concerns might he have that he is not verbalizing?   How might you address these unspoken feelings in order to get the response you are looking for?   


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Let me be clear for any literalists who may be reading this.  It is not whether you are wearing Ellen Tracy pumps or Air Jordan basketball shoes.  It’s got nothing to do with leather in-soles, rhinestoned flip-flops, or cowboy boots.  It actually has nothing at all to do with what shoes you are wearing on your feet.


Great communicators have the ability to step out of their own shoes and into the ones of the person(s) they are talking to.  Understanding the people you are trying to reach – whether they are clients, colleagues, business partners, tennis partners, teenagers, spouses, vendors, et al – is one of the most critical keys to effectively getting your message across.


Knowing your audience and what’s most important to them takes work on your part.  There is the obvious knowing, the facts of the person.   And then there is the excavated, deep-dig info that is rarely spoken and has much more to do with how an individual perceives and feels.  It is harder to attain and is usually the most impacting factor.


Meet Jack.  He was a partner in a large law firm for over a decade and recently left to join a 2-lawyer firm.  He is UCLA-schooled, very competent, genial and well-liked by his clients.  He meets deadlines, listens well, and provides a heavy dose of client hand-holding.  Anyone who has spent an hour with Jack could observe these facts.


Here’s what you may not know about Jack.  His behemoth law firm experience was humbling.  He had little authority to make decisions and when he did make them, he was scrutinized, criticized and often chastised publicly in firm meetings, and sometimes in front of clients.  As a result, he is very shaky about taking a stand.  He tends to agree with the crowd, to defer, and doubts his own judgment - which, by the way, is usually outstanding.  He has become risk-averse, highly sensitive and more than a little defensive.


Imagine yourself the other lawyer in Jack’s new firm.  The two of you are meeting to talk about how you will approach a particular client.  Jack makes a suggestion and you say it doesn’t make sense to you and ask him to explain his thinking.  Jack takes this as a challenge, as masked disagreement.  He gets up and walks out.  What the heck? 


Had you known Jack’s unspoken baggage, would it have been useful to you?  Had you slipped quietly out of your Florescheim wingtips and into his Rockports, might you have approached him differently?  I think so.  You might have started by asking him to describe his approach so you could support it rather than dismissing it as not making sense.  You might have opened the conversation with a statement about how great it is to be able to kick ideas around with someone whose judgment you respect.


Jack is not the exception; he is the norm.  We all come with baggage.  And that baggage comes in a variety of shapes and sizes.  And hardest of all, it doesn’t go on our resume or get discussed in casual conversation.  It reveals itself in behaviors that seem out of whack.  And that’s when it becomes about shoes.


Bob Dylan sang, “I wish there was just one time you could stand inside my shoes, and just for that one moment I could be you.  I wish there was just one time you could stand inside my shoes.  You’d know what a drag it is to see you.”  Add that to soul singer Joe South’s lyrics, “Walk a mile in my shoes, and before you abuse, criticize and accuse, walk a mile in my shoes.”  Makes sense, doesn’t it?


And so, when you slip off your shoes and wedge your feet into the shoes of the other, and see from his or her perspective, you can begin to anticipate how he or she might feel and react – what their hot buttons are.


Effective communication happens when you deliver your message so that it is received as you intended. 


Here are some tips for how to fit your feet into someone else’s shoes and to understand their perspective:


  • Build a relationship.  Be curious about the people you work with.  Ask them what they liked about a previous job and what they didn’t like.
  • Share your own experiences.  This is both an invitation to others to do the same and it lets them see where you are coming from.  After all, you have baggage, too!
  • Make agreements about how you will work together.  For instance, “if you don’t agree with me on an issue, I’d appreciate it if you’d suggest alternatives and we can kick them around together.  Sometimes I get locked in my own perspective. It's important to me, though, that these discussions are done in private so neither of us feels undermined.”
  • Stop and ask yourself, “How is my comment likely to be perceived by this person?  How else might I get my message across?”
  • Check in from time to time.  When someone reacts in a way that doesn’t make sense to you, that’s a clue that something else might be going on. 

Just realizing that there is more than one perspective puts you giant steps ahead of the average communicator. 


We would love to hear your insights on effective communication or any fabulous tales of miscommunication that we might learn from.




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