Intimacy demands empathy and compassion. We want the other person to know that we've been there, too.
But a common type of misguided empathy is too quickly saying, "I know just how you feel." And off you go with a story of your own.
The desire to “totally relate” to what another person is going through arises from good intentions. But it denies the depth and complexity of that person's situation and can turn the attention back to yourself. (“I know just how you feel because I remember how scared I was before my gall bladder surgery”).
I’ve observed the problem of the listener eclipsing the other’s experience very frequently and it leaves the person who is trying to tell her story feeling abandoned. We want others to honor the specificity of our story, not simply to identify it with his or her own.
When my friends, Stephanie and James had dinner with us recently, Stephanie shared her experience of depression—something she’d struggled with on and off, but never as intensely as in the past week. She said that even simple tasks, like eating breakfast and paying the electric bill were beginning to feel almost impossible. James, a wonderful husband who is blessed with an upbeat disposition, kept following Stephanie’s descriptions of her worsening depression with statements like: “I know just what you mean. Sometimes I just don’t want to get out of bed and go to work.”
James’ intentions were good—he wanted to make Stephanie feel understood, and to make her experiences seem “normal.” But James, who had never dealt with anything like a clinical depression, was in fact failing to hear the experiences Stephanie was courageously sharing.
At one point Erica, another friend at the dinner table, said to Stephanie: “I’ve never had to go through what you’re describing, and it sounds profoundly difficult. I’m really impressed that you have the courage to be so open about it. Is there anything we can do to be helpful?” Both James and Erica wanted Stephanie to feel supported. But Erica’s statement honored the difference and specific nature of Stephanie’s experience, whereas James’ comments equated Stephanie’s struggle with his occasional grumpy mornings.
James, to his credit, was able to observe how his attempts to “relate” had minimized what Stephanie was going through. He also realized that he’d been afraid to hear how terrible she felt. As the conversation unfolded, he began to understand the seriousness of Stephanie’s depression and about the need to seek help if it persisted.
Staying deeply curious about the other person's experience without identifying it with your own story is a crucial and undervalued part of listening. Honoring difference instead of reducing it to sameness, allows for a much deeper connection.
In fact, we can never truly know another person’s experience. Try saying, “I can’t imagine what you’re going through.” Or, “It sounds excruciating,” or “I’m so sorry you’re having to deal with this and I want you to know I’m here for you.”
Stay curious! You don't really know how he or she feels.