When someone comes to you with a story of stress, sadness, or disappointment, your first reaction may be to say “I know how you feel.” You’re attempting empathy and that is to be commended.
Those words can backfire. Do you really know? Have you been in the other person’s position before? If you have experienced the same pain, then you can certainly say you know how they feel.
If you have not, the words come across as trite and meaningless. In fact, the response may well be an even sadder or angrier “You can’t possibly know how I feel.”
A more effective — and empathetic — response would be “I understand how you must feel.”
Empathy is trying to understand what another person is going through, where they’re coming from, and what they have to deal with. It is not sympathy. You are not feeling sorry for the other person. You are truly attempting to understand how they must feel, given their unique circumstances.
Other words of empathy, that sound sincere and can be helpful to the other person in the conversation, include:
I understand how difficult that must be for you.
I understand that you are struggling.
I understand that this is a tough situation for you.
Sense a trend here? It’s all about understanding — or at least giving a sincere effort to understanding the other person’s situation and feelings.
After you’ve offered those words, listen to theirs. Really, truly pay attention to their body language, to their facial expressions, and listen to their words.
Empathy is a key component of productive and meaningful communications. It is essential for customer communications as well as internal communications.
I understand how difficult it must be for some people to express empathy in a manner that makes a difference for the other person. It takes practice and focus but produces huge rewards for everyone in the end.