Attempting to empathize with someone’s expressed discomforts can be extremely awkward. Naturally, you want to make people feel better about whatever they may be going through. So you sit, talk and listen — most times that is the only thing needed. However, in your panic mind to not seem useless, you will utter the most convenient but inconsiderate words to respond to the situation; “I understand.”
“I understand” carries the implications that if there was absolutely anything I could do to help or change your situation, I would. I’m pretty sure that is how it is interpreted most times, but I had one occasion when that wasn’t the case. While listening to a friend about somethings that she had been going through, I reached into my underdeveloped arsenal of sympathetic responses and pulled out that false empathic patch of an answer and said, “I understand.” She simply replied, “No you don’t.”
Up until that point, I had never realized how generic I had made those words. “I understand” is a form of empathy; a statement that says, “I have experienced what you are talking about and can relate.” Even though I have sympathy for the situation, saying “I understand” can be a grand overstatement if you have not gone through a similar situation.
That instant realization that I had only used “I understand” to smooth over real frustrations was a wake up call for me regarding that phrase. As I am constantly encouraging perspective and compassion, I actually do attempt to make it common practice. I learned that your genuine intentions can be easily be confused for patronizing if you do not consider your words and their meaning. These days when I say, “I understand,” I make sure that I can thoroughly explain my personal experience to the other person’s experience with accurate relevancy.
“So what if you do not understand?” you may ask.
If I cannot genuinely empathize, I still sympathize; and sometimes to do so, all you need to do is shut your mouth and listen. Saying something that is not genuine can ruin the genuine intentions of the conversation altogether; so just shut your mouth and listen. If anything, you could extend an offer to assist going forward (that only be done if you really mean it).
Sometimes stating understanding is done better with actions than with words. I had to learn it the hard and embarrassing way. Hopefully, this could divert some of you guys from making the same mistake; and if you do, I’ll understand.