Throughout my entire life I have learned about Dr. King, read his famous quotes, and listened to his speeches. It was impossible to take a political science class that involved American history and not discuss MLK and his impact on the Civil Rights Movement. Oddly enough, with continued exposure to MLK and his work, I never really considered one his core lessons to be empathy.
The article made empathy seem like an easy choice, although for some it is a very focused and deliberate act. I have always admired others to whom it comes easily. In my past roles I have often needed to make a note on my meeting agendas and to do lists to slow down and be open to others. Being hyper focused on my own work, and the details of that work, is what came naturally to me. After much practice I would find myself proactively asking clarifying questions, probing the needs and desires of others. It helped to have my wife as an example, she is a naturally caring person who is able to endear herself to others through being inquisitive about a person, and makes a concentrated effort to get to know them. It is a process, although becoming easier, to make sure to ask others to talk about themselves. When I worked for an education reform non-profit I would often write at the top of each page of meeting notes to ask “What is your most pressing need?”, or “If you could pick one thing you would want us to help improve, what would it be?”.
On the last point of walking “ten miles in their shoes”, it sounds as simple as placing yourself in someone else’s situation. From my perspective, there is more to it than that. To understand an urban youths educational experience I could observe a class, or teach a lesson, but that would only be scratching the surface. To really walk in someone’s shoes, you need to understand their “shoes”. I could never really put myself in the shoes of an inner city youth from Chicago who was going to be mentored by a 22 year old from South Florida. The complexities of that dynamic involve so many different aspects other than simply asking people to share their thoughts. After delivering trainings about literacy tutoring, or behavior management sessions, I would create situations and ask our mentors to teach me a literacy lesson, or handle a real life situation involving a student acting up that I had personally encountered. Not only could I see what the mentor had learned, I would see what the student would be exposed to, how an adult they were supposed to trust would treat them. While it helped me gain insight to the experience we provided for our students, it did give me some insights to how difficult it was for others to be patient and open.
It was through this work that I developed my empathy muscle. Listening to others, and striving to understand their perspective and experience is something that is crucial when you want to have an impact in any setting, and something I am constantly working on.