Some of you will have noticed that I haven't posted a new blog in a while. I'm a firm believer in the phrase 'if you have nothing useful to say, say nothing', and I don't see the point of blogging for blogging's sake.
But recently I have had a number of discussions with people across different organisations and experiences, and the same theme has run through all of them. Before I start, I want to thank everyone I have talked to - even though we have been dealing with particular issues it has helped to formulate these thoughts in my head.
When I was a young child, although we weren't poor, my father was 'thrifty'. Growing up I would often be clothed in things that had been acquired from the local jumble sale, or hand-me-downs from my sister (when my father thought we could get away with it). I remember going to junior school once in a cream jumper that we had just bought from the local church jumble. It was the best jumper I had and I felt pretty good turning up to school in it. Of course, I didn't feel quite as good when the school bully told me that it was his jumper. I don't think his mother had told him that she had donated his old jumper to the church, and it was a good excuse for him to start a fight with me. This was just one of the problems of living in a small village!
As well as wearing second hand clothes, I also wore second hand shoes. These were often passed down from my sister, although occasionally we would get these from charity collections as well. I remember wearing Clarks' Polyveldts that my sister had grown out of, and I hated them. Not only that, but I was resentful of my sister for getting new shoes while I always got off-casts. I didn't think it was fair that I should be put in someone else's shoes. I didn't understand why I was being picked on, or why my father was willing to spend money on my sister but not on me.
"I didn't think it was fair that I should be put in someone else's shoes. I didn't understand why I was being picked on"
Although this is a story from childhood, it has some relevance to us now. In our busy lives, whether family or work, it is easy to get introspective. It is easy to start analysing other people's actions and wondering why people are behaving in a certain way toward you. Sometimes it is easy to get paranoid, or defensive, or stressed about other people's actions and how they affect you. Sometimes this can lead to fractured work or home relationships, to serious illness or worse.
"it is easy to get paranoid, or defensive, or stressed about other people's actions and how they affect you."
You might be wondering why I am talking about this? Surely I blog about statistics and analysis, about the training I deliver and ways to improve data understanding. What does our attitude toward others, and my childhood experiences have to do with providing good analysis? Well bear with me, because I believe that the content of this blog is also relevant to how we analyse and present data.
I remember being on a mentoring course many years ago. As part of this we had an introduction to some of the aspects of NLP. I can't remember much, but I do remember doing an exercise where we all acted out a difficult scenario as someone else. In essence, we were putting ourselves in someone else's shoes. I remember that doing this, and trying to see a situation from a different point of view, really helped to put the situation in perspective. Since then I have always tried to take a step back, put myself in someone else's shoes and try to see how they are thinking or feeling before jumping to conclusions.
Of course, this is easier said than done. When you are in the middle of a situation, when someone is shouting, or being critical, or acting in a way you didn't expect, its difficult to breathe, take a step back and think about why. But I would suggest that it is essential. As work becomes more demanding and stresses increase, other people's behaviour will get more erratic. This is a fact. It would be nice to suggest that management and leadership is getting better and that this will help the situation, but I am really not convinced that this is true. It is more likely that in most organisations the increased pressures takes managers away from helping their staff, and concentrates their efforts more on meeting targets. And what follows in this blog applies to people at all levels in an organisation, as well as being equally applicable to family situations.
"As work becomes more demanding and stresses increase, other people's behaviour will get more erratic."
So what does it mean to put yourself in someone else's shoes? It means seeing the current situation through a different lens, through the eyes of someone else. It is the foundation of empathy - something that is critical in the current work environment. It is something that should be addressed in every management course. It is something that should be evidenced before putting someone into a position of management or leadership.
"It is the foundation of empathy - something that is critical in the current work environment. It is something that should be addressed in every management course. It is something that should be evidenced before putting someone into a position of management or leadership."
It is also critical when thinking about, and dealing with, inappropriate discrimination. (I use the phrase 'inappropriate discrimination' as 'discrimination' simply means recognition and understanding of the difference between one thing and another. Of course, the word 'discrimination' is now used to imply negativity particularly when referring to protected characteristics such as race, religion, sexuality, disability etc.). Now, I have some sympathy with people who say that they don't see race, gender, sexuality, disability and so on - that they treat everyone equally. However, we are in a culture where inappropriate discrimination happens frequently, and I personally believe it is important that we do see all of these things and change our behaviour accordingly. To avoid inappropriate discrimination it is necessary to put ourselves in the shoes of those with a different ethnicity, gender, religion, ability etc, before we state our views, make decisions, throw out judgements, create policies and so on. This is what helps us to ensure that we are treating others as we would like to be treated, that we are respecting others' positions, abilities and beliefs.
"To avoid inappropriate discrimination it is necessary to put ourselves in the shoes of those with a different ethnicity, gender, religion, ability etc, before we state our views, make decisions, throw out judgements, create policies...."
We think, naively, that just treating people equally is enough, but without taking into account the individual who is on the receiving end our 'equality' can be quite damaging. If you can't see why this is so, think of a work canteen that only provides meat dishes - it is treating everyone equally when it should be acknowledging that different people have different dietary needs and catering accordingly.
From a general perspective, putting yourself in another's shoes, understanding the context and responding accordingly has to be the right thing to do. It is not sufficient to treat everyone equally because as individuals we are not all equal. It is not okay to assume that everyone is like you, feels like you, responds like you, has your likes and dislikes, tolerates what you will. We are all unique individuals with our own needs, strengths, experiences, fears and weaknesses. You cannot successfully relate to someone else without understanding their context. Of course, this works both ways - how you respond to a particular situation will depend on both your context, and the context of the person / people you are responding to. So for healthy discussion and relationships it is up to all the situational players to look beyond themselves and their own issues and try to see things from the other point of view. This is true for all relationships, not just those that have the potential for inappropriate discrimination.
"It is not sufficient to treat everyone equally because as individuals we are not all equal."
How does all this relate to data and analysis though? While we have discussed how to have more meaningful, and equitable conversations and relationships, surely this has little to do with how we analyse and present data? When I deliver my training courses we often talk about understanding the data that we are analysing, understanding the context of how data has been collected, coded and cleaned. Anyone who is serious about data knows that it is not absolute, that there are always inaccuracies, always missing data, always peculiarities in how it is coded. We need to understand this if our analysis is going to be of any use. We often criticise data quality but we need to put ourselves in the shoes of those who have collected the data, those who have coded the data and those who have cleaned it. We need to appreciate the challenges that have been faced before we criticise or analyse.
"we need to put ourselves in the shoes of those who have collected the data, those who have coded the data and those who have cleaned it. We need to appreciate the challenges that have been faced before we criticise or analyse."
I also talk to my students about how data is going to be used, and by whom. Often as analysts we're asked for data and we produce what we think is wanted. How many times does this turn out to be wrong, or we need to revise our analysis a number of times? This is often because we have not appreciated:
Why the question is being asked
What is good enough given the timescales
Who is going to use the data
Who the ultimate audience is
Whether there are any organisational concerns
Whether there are political implications
Whether there are ethical issues
....and the list goes on. Put simply, we have not understood the context. We have not put ourselves in the shoes of the person asking the question. We have not appreciated the pressures and stresses that have been put on them. We often don't appreciate, or even think about, whether the person using the analysis is data literate or whether the final audience will understand the data in the way we have presented it. I tell students that a significant amount of time and effort needs to be spent by an analyst in understanding data context before analysis takes place. This involves talking to the people who have collected the data, the people who have coded it, the people who have cleaned it. It involves talking to those who are going to use the data, trying to understand where they are coming from, what they are going to do with your analysis, who they are going to share it with and so on. It involves effort, and sometimes some difficult conversations. The data analysis is the easy part, but without understanding the context it is likely that what you produce will be of no use.
"We have not put ourselves in the shoes of the person asking the question..... We often don't appreciate, or even think about, whether the person using the analysis is data literate or whether the final audience will understand the data in the way we have presented it."
Next time you find yourself in a difficult situation, next time people respond in a way you didn't expect, next time you are asked to do something that you don't understand, next time you feel you have been treated unfairly...take a breath. Try to understand the context of where the other person is coming from and put yourself in their shoes. Now, I don't think this comes naturally - as human beings we are wired to make snap decisions, to judge people quickly, to promote ourselves over others, to believe our own judgement rather than the evidence in front of us. But, in reality, putting yourself in someone else's shoes shouldn't be something you do just when you are in a difficult situation. It is something you should do in every situation, in every interaction with others. It is about respecting someone enough to try to understand their point of view. It is hard, but the more we practice it, the more natural it becomes.
"putting yourself in someone else's shoes shouldn't be something you do just when you are in a difficult situation. It is something you should do in every situation, in every interaction with others. It is about respecting someone enough to try to understand their point of view."
Thinking back to being a child, wearing those second hand Polyveldts, I had a childish outlook, I was focussed on myself and how I was being treated unfairly. As an adult I see things differently, I see my sister having to wear unisex shoes when the girls around her were wearing more fashionable shoes and I see my sister getting teased for what she wore. As a child I felt that she was being treated better than I was, but as an adult I see that she was only treated differently to me (I can't say whether better or worse). As a child I felt my father was 'stingy', and that I deserved better, but as an adult I see that we could afford to be fed well, go on family holidays every year and live in a nice house.
As adults, how many times do we look back and understand a situation that we didn't at the time? How many times do we hear about someone who was going through a messy divorce, family tragedy, major health issues? How many times do we use hindsight and realise why someone behaved as they did? Looking back with hindsight I understand a lot that I didn't at the time, both as a child and as an adult. But, more importantly, I have learned that we all need to wear someone else's shoes.......