Have you ever felt one inch tall?

One Inch Tall by Shel Silverstein

If you were only one inch tall, you’d ride a worm to school.
The teardrop of a crying ant would be your swimming pool.
A crumb of cake would be a feast
And last you seven days at least,
A flea would be a frightening beast
If you were one inch tall.

If you were only one inch tall, you’d walk beneath the door,
And it would take about a month to get down to the store.
A bit of fluff would be your bed,
You’d swing upon a spider’s thread,
And wear a thimble on your head
If you were one inch tall.

You’d surf across the kitchen sink upon a stick of gum.
You couldn’t hug your mama, you’d just have to hug her thumb.
You’d run from people’s feet in fright,
To move a pen would take all night,
(This poem took fourteen years to write–
‘Cause I’m just one inch tall).

No doubt you’ve put yourself in another’s shoes on occasion, perhaps as a means of helping them or in an effort to understand them. You’ve reached outside of yourself to intellectually understand another’s thoughts, feelings or attitudes, taking an impression as an old locksmith would when duplicating a key in wax.

Empathy, the capacity to intellectually identify with or vicariously experience another’s situation, is vitally important to effective leadership. Feeling the sense of restriction in the experience of a fellow, for instance, without being bound oneself(!), can often help you to provide suggestions as to how to overcome the limitation. Bosses, parents, civic leaders and so on are wise to have empathy as an arrow in their quiver.

Empathy also allows for a tremendous transference of feeling. As sentient beings, feeling is very important to us. Whether left or right brain dominant, feelings are always involved in some fashion with reason and action. Some say that sales is, in its essence, the transference of feeling. Empathy, then, can be a powerful tool in the sales process if used rightly.

Even if you’ve never felt what the person is going through personally, empathy allows you to get taste of it – perhaps more sorbet than ice cream – but a taste of it nonetheless. I’ve noticed that a trait common to the better nurses and doctors is a well-developed capacity for empathy. They don’t roll around in the impression, nor do they identify with what is perceived, but they do use it to advantage and likely speed the healing process as a result.

If someone you know feels one inch tall, don’t commiserate. Sympathy – harmonizing with the woes of others around you like a tuning fork in a concert hall – never helps. Take an impression and be a leader. Leaders lead. Show them the way out. If they come with you, well and good. If they don’t, well, it’s their choice, isn’t it?

Extend empathy to others but beware, you run the risk of others extending their empathy to you. A delightful quid pro quo!

Thank you, Shel Silverstein, for a rich and inspiring legacy of wonderful poems.

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12 thoughts on “Have you ever felt one inch tall?

  • New perspective, I never thought of sympathy as harmonizing. I’ve been described as “hard nosed” because of my aversion to it. It doesn’t help anyone it makes them feel worse.Empathy is a different route, it doesn’t require a solution but it does offer some space.

    • I like your point about empathy not requiring a solution. In my own experience, the solution is often born in the fertile “space” as you mention generated by empathetic concern. It really is an organic process.

  • We have been reading “To Kill A Mockingbird” and one of the major themes we’ve been working with is empathy. This has been one of my favorite books since I was young so I love teaching it. Atticus is always striving to have empathy, regardless of who he is dealing with. Even when Bob Ewell spits in his face, Atticus doesn’t react. Instead, he sees things from Ewell’s point of view. As a lawyer, Atticus must do this, but it also reveals a lot about what kind of a man Atticus is. He is a good example of the balance of strongly held convictions, wisdom, and empathy, and he has always been a strong example to me of the moral backbone needed in any good leader. Your post will be a great resource as we further explore the theme of empathy. Have a great day!!

  • I can remember my grandmother conveying that people may forget what it was exactly you said or did, but they will never forget how you made them feel. It is great to see how feeling can be used as a tool to genuinely make a difference in the life of another.

  • A lesson that I learned many years ago (like most of these types of lessons, one that is learned the hard way!) was that when I was sympathetic towards a person that as a general rule I was adding to their problems. On the other hand, when one feels and shows empathy towards another they could actually be assisting in the solution of the problem. As a manager of others, this was a major lesson for me and actually changed dramatically the value that I was able to provide to others.

    And this lesson spilled over to my subsequent career in sales. As Gregg has indicated, “sales is a transference of feelings”. In this venue having sympathy towards your prospective client or even existing client is basically showing them no respect, hence the transference of that particular feeling.

    On the other hand, when one truly has empathy for their prospect and/or client, than the feeling that is being transferred is one of respect and desire to provide value, to offer solutions, which is the essence of sales.

    This is another one of those lessons that has about a 180 degree difference in outcome isn’t it!

  • I’m intrigued by the suggestion at the end of the post to “show them the way out.” I agree that empathy is an understanding, maybe even just appreciating and valuing, their perspective.

    I think the answer is more complex. I learned a long time ago that unrequested advice is always received as criticism. So I tend to offer rather than show. It’s a minor point, but important because once you’ve practiced the empathy, you don’t want to forfeit your effectiveness as a helper. As you empathize with the individual, you’ll know, and do, the right thing. Sometimes that may be nothing, but it is leadership.

    Mike…

    • Great points, Mike. I think that your “effectiveness as a helper” depends in large part on your ability to package your assistance in a way that it will most likely be accepted by those requesting help. And sometimes, as you note, the right thing to do at the moment might be nothing!

    • Mike – you bring up a great point regarding “unrequested advice being received as criticism”. Personally, growing up when I came across a troubling circumstance I never much cared for unsolicited advice and yet it seemed everywhere you turned there were “adults” ready and willing to give you their take on the world and the way things “are” in relation to what I was experiencing – mostly sympathy….I wanted to just shake them off!….give me someone who can stand up with a backbone, and offer something I can sink my teeth into!!
      Those I admired the most as leaders had a way of “packaging” their advice as Gregg says, and yes sometimes it meant doing nothing on their part – yet that always left me thinking even more.
      Thanks for thoughts.

  • Like Doug noted for himself above, I also sometimes seem to dive headfirst at a problem, and judge a situation before I really get a hold of it. Lately, I have been practicing stepping back and “putting myself in someone’s shoes” before I take any action, and I have found that the solutions that come of it are more elegant, and promote goodwill from all involved. I have been amazed at the difference.

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