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In the past month, I’ve taken two trips to the Glen Eyrie Castle in the Garden of the Gods near Colorado Springs. (Lucky me!) Each time, I slept in a very different room–on purpose–because I wanted to spend my time walking in another person’s shoes.

During the first trip, I had the “honeymoon suite” at the top of the tower. A gigantic room that dwarfed the king sized bed and left a vast amount of vacant floor space. Extremely tall windows that only reached halfway to the vaulted ceiling. A private seating area. Bench seats near the fireplace that tempted me to curl up with a book. Incredible views and lots of light.

As I stretched out upon the bed, it was easy to imagine being a pampered princess living in a castle. However, I was far away from the rest of the activity. Which on our trip was a good thing to be separated from giggling middle schoolers, but if I lived there in real life? I’d be isolated and alone. And did I mention the number of stairs I had to climb to reach my room? I suppose if I truly lived in a castle I’d have one of the servants fetch anything I’d forgotten, but on our trip, I deliberately carried a backpack with anything I might need during the day so I could save the effort.

Pros and cons of the tower room aside, I can honestly imagine living in luxury and being waited on my others.

However, the second trip, I chose the smallest room in what was the former servant quarters. Of course, it’s since been lavishly decorated with a comfortable double bed, linens, and pretty wallpaper with a neat attached private bathroom. But there wasn’t near the floor space. No fireplace or seating area. Not to mention, it took a winding path through crooked hallways into a different section of the castle just to reach my room. In addition to sleeping in the servant quarters, I also got familiar with the extremely steep and narrow servants stairs. Oh, and the view out my small window? 

By sleeping in this room, it was also relatively easy to imagine what my life would have been like to truly be a servant in a castle. To be up at dawn, work hard all day, and then retreat to my small quarters to collapse in exhaustion at night only to do it all again the next day. To daily spend time in or catch glimpses of the beautiful places…but know that I was not allowed to linger there. To daily be reminded of my station in life. My place. My limited future.

Now I chose the contrasting rooms deliberately because I’m currently writing a historical novella about a young woman who is essentially a servant in the home of her distant cousins. And later this year I’ll be working on a Cinderella type story where the true heiress has her identity stolen and is demoted to servant. What would it be like to have experienced the first room and been forced into the second?

Part of my writing process involves “getting into character” in order to make the people in my stories real. No matter what type of character or setting, I try to spend time walking in another person’s shoes (or at least imagining myself there) because that level of research makes the overall story stronger.

But I’m reminded that this is also a valuable lesson for any relationship. 

Whether it’s a stranger talking loudly on their phone at Starbucks or my husband who stumbles home at the end of the day frustrated about a call from the parent of one of his students, the idea of empathy–of walking in another person’s shoes–makes for stronger relationships. Because instead of judging their actions at face value through the lens of my own roller-coaster day, I can imagine what they’ve experienced in the hours before we met and know that the snippy tone was not aimed at me personally. Which in turn alters my own response and doesn’t feed the flame of confrontation.

All because of my choice to be walking in another person’s shoes.

What about you? Have you ever gone out of your way to understand someone else’s way of life? Did you learn anything surprising in the process? How did that new understanding affect your interactions and their outcomes?

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