Last week I finished listening to a really good audio book titled, So You Want to Talk About Race. The title kept popping up on some of my apps, as a suggested read, based on my previous books and reviews. Each time the suggestion popped up I thought for a moment and then looked at other suggested material. The reason being that the voice in my head was saying, “I am not a racist, that book isn’t for me”. The book was absolutely for me.
I won’t try to tell you what it is about and the questions that it answered for me; it is not my story to tell. But you should either listen to or read it. I gained understanding, and it also reminded me that I will never completely understand. It is the continued effort that makes us to be more compassionate and caring.
If I was assigned to teach the world how to be more empathetic the first lesson would be, with limited exceptions, to stop using the words, “I understand”. When people say those words they are almost always trying to be kind but the real result is that they are minimizing your grief, your pain or your struggle.
Example: Someone you care about tells you about how they are really struggling with the death of their pet. You too have lost a pet and it wasn’t easy for you. If you say, “I understand”, it minimizes your friend’s grief. You may have considered your pet as a part of the family, but however much you loved Fido, Fluffy or Tweety, you didn’t have the same relationship with your beloved pet that this person had with theirs. It is kind of like you are trying to make their grief about you. It is a particularly bad choice of words if you have never been a pet owner.
Your friend probably won’t call you out on this, yet there is a really good chance that they will think, “No, you don’t.” This social rule that I am suggesting includes a multitude of situations. Bite your tongue when you are tempted to say, “I understand” when someone tells you about any of these; loss of a job or trouble at work, discord withing their family or with a partner, financial stress, health problems, loneliness, mental health struggles and concerns about faith. Don’t do it. Even if you have had something similar happen, you didn’t experience it in the way they did.
When you catch yourself wanting to say those words consider saying one of these instead:
- This must be really hard.
- Help me to understand (then stop talking and listen)
- How can I help?
- I can only imagine how difficult this must be
- Tell me what I can do.
- Would you like to tell me about it?
If they ask if you if you understand, and sometimes they do, a good response would go something like this; “When my Fido died the hardest time of day was when I would first get home and he was no longer there wagging his tail and giving me his best dog dance to welcome me back. Is it kind of like that for you?” This invites the person to either agree or to tell you more about how they are grieving. They will feel much more understood with this type of response than if you were announce that you understand.
Saying you understand, especially if you say it several times, can come across as a dismissal. If a person is giving you directions on how to do a task and you reply to their directions with. “I understand” you pretty much expect them to stop talking. Likewise, the same phrase, even when said with good intentions, can make the person sharing their story feel as though they need move on and stop troubling you with their issue.
In our stressed out world, where all of us need more kindness and compassion, we must never stop trying to understand. We must also accept that we will never really attain full understanding. When it comes to empathy the most important thing is our diligent unending effort.
Thanks for reading. Have a blessed week.
Joann Villalon, Audi Nissen, Lucia, Markus Spiske and Alex Jackman provided the photographs for this week’s blog.