We often utter these two words under the guise of empathy and compassion.
We say them almost automatically when something said triggers a memory in ourselves.
But when we say these words, we are not being empathetic. Or compassionate.
We are being egotistical and worst and narrow-minded at best.
Assuming that we know more and that others’ experiences parallel our own.
Those two words are dismissive and minimizing.
Rather than provide comfort, they lend an air of superiority that leaves the “understood” one feeling invisible rather than appreciated as it reduces an entire lifetime of experiences and reactions to a mere sketch comprised of conjecture.
“I understand” is built upon a foundation of assumptions.
It assumes that everyone perceives as you do.
Feels as you do.
Responds as you do.
But they don’t.
You can relate. You can identify.
And you can certainly empathize.
But you will never understand.
It’s worse than simply putting words into someone’s mouth.
It’s also putting thoughts into their heads.
And feelings into their hearts.
We feel understood when somebody listens to us, not when they talk at us.
We feel understood when somebody accepts our perceptions rather than when they try to convince us of their own.
We feel understood when somebody honors and respects our differences instead of trying to reduce us to a common denominator.
And paradoxically, we often feel the most understood when somebody admits that they do not understand. And instead of offering words, they give the gifts of presence and kindness.
Because we don’t ever understand what somebody else is experiencing. But we all know what it’s like to be scared or hurting or confused. And we all know how important it is to feel understood and accepted.
So rather than saying you understand their situation, demonstrate that you understand that you cannot fully comprehend their pain yet you can support them just the same.
Be receptive rather than prescriptive.
Ask instead of tell.
And listen more than you speak.
For more on the idea of assuming understanding, read this post on The Good Men Project.