Put Yourself in Their Shoes

My dad recently accompanied me on a trip to San Francisco. While I had to do some work while I was there, this city was a bucket list destination for him. As I mentioned in an earlier blog post, he had taken a bad fall last year and shattered his femur. Coming on this trip to San Francisco offered some incentive for him during his physiotherapy.

In San Francisco, we got a wheelchair for him, even though he can walk reasonably well with a cane. Given that he is still healing, I didn’t want him over-extending himself as we discovered the delights of the city by the bay. I really didn’t expect to learn anything about PR or communications because my dad had a wheelchair, but I did. (Funny how that happens.)

I took responsibility for pushing the wheelchair. It was something I wanted to do; he’s my dad after all. And we went to a lot of places: Fisherman’s Wharf, Pier 39, took a tour of Alcatraz and a wine tour of Napa Valley, rode on a cable car, went to Union Square, took a tour of the city, took a ferry to Sausalito, and more.

I discovered how challenging it can be for someone who has mobility issues. The ramps for wheelchairs aren’t always easy, sidewalk lips are a real issue, and crowded restaurants and bars are a nightmare. It isn’t because people don’t care or aren’t sympathetic; it’s just that everyone is involved in their own world and sometimes they don’t realize what it takes for someone with a wheelchair (or a cane or other support device) to get around.

For five days in San Francisco, I saw the world from the perspective of a person in a wheelchair and it was, frankly, exhausting. Even though many people went out of their way to be helpful, it was hard to maneuver around and I had to be alert for potential issues or risks. I was vigilant about making sure my dad was able to see the sites, to be respectful of other people and to stay safe – keeping an eye out for children running around, other tourists not paying attention to where they were walking, for things on the sidewalk that could catch the wheels, curb lips that weren’t that easy to navigate and – of course – hills. (We were in San Francisco…)

That’s when it hit me: People don’t always fully realize what specific stakeholders are going through or what the situation looks like from their perspective. Sometimes, you really do have to put yourself in their shoes to truly understand the challenges that they face (often on a daily basis). And there are times that these might be things that we take for granted or think are unimportant because they aren’t happening to us. It is a different world when you step into their shoes and actually experience what they live with every day.

This is very interesting to me because I believe – and have been told – that I have strength in the area of identifying how people receive information, given their specific situation or perspective. I am empathetic; I go out and listen to what people have to say. I work hard to fully understand what it means to the person I am speaking with. I am good at developing communications pieces that support change management because I realize how important it is to fully understand what people truly need or expect – not just what the organization wants them to know.

For me, it reinforced the importance of taking the time to really listen to the concerns and feedback of stakeholder groups. It opened me up to the fact that there are so many seemingly small pieces that can get overlooked unless you authentically shift your mindset from what needs to be communicated to what the people you are opening the conversation with want to hear. You need to “live in the shoes” of the people you want to connect with.

As communicators, we are often tasked with being the translator – taking organizational messages (positive or negative) to individuals and to stakeholder groups. I think it is important that we acknowledge how crucial it is to not just understand the messaging, but to embrace the perspective of the community and to truly realize what matters to those individuals. That will take us from being a good communicator to being a great one.

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