Wisdom//

Here’s How to Respond With Empathy Without Saying, “I Know How You Feel”

How to respond when you can’t relate to someone’s experience.

Courtesy of WilleeCole Photography / Shutterstock
Courtesy of WilleeCole Photography / Shutterstock

It’s happened to everyone: Someone you care about needed your support, but you weren’t quite sure how to be there for them. Maybe you never experienced what they were going through, or simply didn’t understand why they were feeling a certain way. No matter where the disconnect stemmed from, it’s likely you felt at a loss for what to say. 

Research from the University of Virginia suggests that humans are inherently empathetic, especially toward those who are closest to them, like friends, family, and romantic partners. But while humans are creatures of compassion, that doesn’t mean it is always easy to relate to another person’s experience — even if they are your best friend, sibling, or spouse. 

“It is thought to be easiest to feel compassion for oneself, and then the circle extends outward to family, friends, community, country, and world. The further out the circle extends, the more practice is required to see and experience others as being just like us,” Ed Harpin, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and a member of the Compassion Institute based in California, tells Thrive Global. Harpin says it takes time and, sometimes, training to recognize that other people’s challenges — even if they are different than the difficulties you’ve faced — are rooted in a shared human experience. And, more importantly, you don’t need to grasp the ins and outs of someone else’s experience to offer your support. You simply need to show up for them. 

Skip the sympathy 

“Paying attention is the only way you can fully connect with someone. And even if you cannot fully connect with someone, the only way you’re going to connect as best you can is to show up all the way — mentally, physically, even spiritually,” Erik Conklin, Ed.D, a coach, teacher, and compassion and mindfulness coach based in California, tells Thrive Global. What might this look like? Both Harpin and Conklin say you can provide support by using empathetic phrases and actions, rather than offering a sympathetic response. 

“Sympathy has a sense of ‘poor you’ to it. [It’s like] saying, ‘I’m stronger than you are, so I’m going to come tend to you,” Conklin explains. Phrases such as “I feel sorry for you” can convey separation, a lack of understanding, or even condescension, Harpin says.

“I would also encourage people to avoid saying ‘I know how you feel’ because there are a lot of assumptions in that little phrase. They might be experiencing something in a way that you truly don’t understand. ‘I know how you feel’ almost erodes the validity of their experience,” Conklin says. 

Embrace empathy 

When you’re unsure of how to best respond to someone else’s struggles, give yourself permission to take a step back. “It might be best to pause, take a breath, and be aware of what you’re feeling in your own body in response to hearing about the difficulty the other person is experiencing. At the same time…we can also notice any thoughts that we are having about the situation,” Harpin says. This brief pause provides an opportunity to reflect and ultimately choose a compassionate response, rather than what Harpin calls an “automatic canned response” — something that is largely generic and unhelpful. 

Furthermore, sometimes it is best to sit and listen to what your loved one has to say. Your physical presence and willingness to hear them out will show that you care, even if you aren’t able to find the perfect words — and what’s more, Conklin says this will ensure that you aren’t inserting too much of your own take on the situation. 

“Sometimes it’s just about sitting with them and processing, or not even processing at all — just sitting with them. You’ll want to use neutrally-charged phrases like ‘that sounds tough’ and acknowledge what they’re saying, in both verbal and non-verbal ways. So, ‘I will sit here with you while you go through this’ [or] ‘I don’t need to understand all of what you’re going through — I can still sit here with you and listen,’” Conklin says. 

Practice gratitude

Perhaps the most effective thing you can do to build your empathy and compassion is to develop an awareness of gratitude in your day-to-day life. Every day, Conklin recommends acknowledging your “three circles of influence”, or three individuals who make your life better. The first level consists of someone in your primary social circle (like your spouse or sibling); the second is someone you are well-acquainted with but might not interact with everyday (like a coworker); the third is someone who makes your life easier, but often remains in the background, like your mail carrier or a tow truck driver. 

“Each day, acknowledge in your own mind or even out loud what they have done for you, and why your life is better because they are in it. Doing this sort of gratitude acknowledgement helps you appreciate people and your situation in life, and reminds you that other people are going through what you’re going through,” Conklin says. “By being other-centered it actually helps your compassion, empathy, and your sense of calm.”

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