Do you know there is a better way to connect rather than saying “I understand”?
When people are upset or frustrated and are telling someone what is going on and what they are feeling and thinking, I often find people say “I understand…” or something similar to try and make them feel better.
I used to do this myself until one day after someone had been sobbing and telling me about what her relationship breakup and in attempting to be compassionate, said those words. “I understand what you are going through.”. She looks at me and said. “How can you understand you are not even a woman!! You don’t know what it is like, what it feels like, it is not your relationship. How can you possibly understand what I am going through?”.
I had no answer. I had my own experiences, but these were not her experiences. I had not lived her life, did not know what it was exactly like to be in her shoes.
Unless it is like one of the movies or TV shows where we magically switch bodies, our minds meld or some other creative way we get to experience all of the other person’s life, we are in no position to say “I understand”. We may believe we have had what looks like from the outside a similar experience, like a relationship breakup, being dumped and feeling a lot of pain. Again that is all within our self and will not match what the other person is going through.
I struggled with this for a while, my first strategy was just to listen and not comment at all. That felt better. It allowed the other person to express themselves and to be heard. This certainly worked better than the “I understand ..”.
I also tried the “how are you feeling, what do you need?” approach with extremely mixed results. The most common responses were a blank look followed by either “It should be obvious” or “I don’t know what I need.”
All of this really helped me get that everybody is an individual, they are the sum of their experiences, and the best I can do is honour that by being present and accepting them for who they are.
Where I am at now is that I just get present, listen, take an interest, accept them for who they are and use empathy to connect by just acknowledging their feelings and searching for their needs. I simply ask the question in this form:
“Are you feeling …… because you need ……” In this I am guessing at what they are feeling and what they need. Often this is an educated guess.
For example. “Are you feeling frustrated and upset because you need to be heard by your partner?’
I know I am on the money when I see the person’s head nodding in agreement. If not I get a slightly puzzled look and they typically hone in on the feeling and the need.
When we say “I understand…”, we are trying to sympathise with the person in the belief that it will make them feel better. Now this may work for someone who is playing the victim and looking for sympathy.
In one of the courses that I did the presenter defined the difference between sympathy and empathy this way. ‘If someone is in the bottom of a well, sympathy is going down in the well to join them. Empathy is throwing them a rope and helping them get out.” That definition has always stuck with me.
The rope is the connection, it is how we connect with others. It can be a life line. In order to help others we need to understand their world. Understanding their world does not mean we have to get into it, to be feeling and thinking as they are. This would mean that if someone is miserable, we need to be miserable too.
Feelings are just an indicator of whether a need is being met or not. We acknowledge the other person’s feelings and search for their needs. Then, if possible and they are willing we can look for ways to get their needs met. Read more about who controls our feelings on my previous blog post here…
Being present and letting them feel that you are there for them more often than not will help them vent out their true feelings. They will feel the connection. This is when they will be comfortable in expressing their true desires. Never underestimate the power of just being present, listening and saying very little.
Here’s to more happy, loving, and fulfilling relationships. Until next time.
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