“Try walking a mile in someone else’s shoes.”
This age-old advice encourages us to consider and understand another person’s perspective and experience. Having been in someone else’s shoes can trigger a rush of empathy and may prompt us to take action by offering compassion or advice to someone in need. We often feel we can better support a loved one through hardship when we have also been through similar challenges.
In the scientific literature, the ability to accurately assess how others are thinking or feeling is called “accurate interpersonal understanding,” and past research suggests that experience similarity can increase a person’s level of understanding and might even improve relationships.
“When we interact with other people in a social situation, feeling understood and understanding other people is so crucial to the quality of the interaction and to our well-being,” says Yoona Kang, Research Director of the Communication Neuroscience Lab at the University of Pennsylvania.
Similarity and Understanding
When Kang and colleagues set out to explore what would help people to understand another person more (or less) accurately, what they found was surprising. Having a past similar life experience didn’t lead to better understanding—instead, it was associated with lower factual and empathetic accuracy.
The study included 77 female participants who were randomized to either a compassion practice or a control activity (the outcome of which Kang says will be explored in a future paper). Next, the participants watched a recorded video of someone telling an emotional life story and were asked to rate the speaker’s emotions through an emotion rating task and recall factual details about the story. Participants were also asked whether they had experienced a similar event as the one shared in the video.
The findings revealed that when participants indicated they had a shared experience with the speaker, they were less accurate at recalling details and were not as skilled at understanding the speaker’s emotions.
The Influence of Mindfulness on Interpersonal Understanding
Kang’s study also measured individual differences in mindful attention and awareness, using a common self-report tool called the Mindful Attention Awareness Scale (MAAS).
“We found that mindfulness was associated with better empathic accuracy,” says Kang. This finding is consistent with other research that has demonstrated an association between mindfulness and positive interpersonal outcomes, perhaps because mindfulness can change how we interpret emotional situations.
However, there was a catch. “The link between higher mindfulness and the ability to accurately understand others’ emotions was mostly driven by those who did not have a similar past experience with the speaker” says Kang. In other words, the benefit of mindfulness diminished if the participant had experienced a similar event.
This unexpected outcome may have more to do with the limitations of the research methodology than with mindfulness itself. Given that mindfulness is multi-faceted, says Kang, it’s difficult for self-report tools like the MAAS to capture other aspects of mindfulness, such as compassion and intention.
“The survey that we used in our study measured the attention and awareness aspects of mindfulness, which means that the kind of interaction we observed may not hold for different facets of mindfulness. We encourage future studies to examine more comprehensive dimensions of mindfulness.”
Maybe You Don’t Know What You Know
Kang also notes that mindfulness as measured in this study still led to higher levels of empathic accuracy. This means that an individual’s past experiences didn’t completely cloud their ability to empathize, and there may be ways to approach social interactions while being aware that inherent biases can affect how you interpret another person’s struggles.
The Zen concept of “beginner’s mind” can be a helpful part of mindfulness practice, which teaches that not knowing may be more beneficial than making assumptions. As Jack Kornfield writes, “In close relationships, if we rely on assumptions, we lose our freshness.”
Kang agrees that recognizing our biases can be key to improved understanding. “Connecting with others based on our own past experience is not a bad thing—maybe that’s a vehicle to connect with the other person; and it’s a powerful vehicle. Simply recognizing the moment of bias that can come with our past experience can help us stay fresh and open to the other person’s unique experience.”
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