By Amber Kinloch
It’s a little phrase that pops up all the time in our daily conversations. We mean well. We wish to express our sympathy, to let people know they’re not alone, that we grasp what they’re dealing with.
But do we?
It’s one thing to use this phrase in connection with minor irksome things—dealing with bad traffic, for instance. But how about when we get on to bigger issues? Think of a major illness, conflicts in relationships, a difficult family member, etc.
It’s so easy to say, “I understand,” without really doing so because we’re not the person dealing with the matter at hand. Whoever’s struggling is different from us. They have their own unique situation, pressure points, etc. Just because I’ve dealt with the same issue or something similar doesn’t mean I understand.
Take depression. Postpartum depression is different from chronic depression, or depression induced by loneliness or a traumatic experience. There are also different stages to depression which vary in intensity. You can’t just say that because you’ve dealt with it that you understand what another’s suffering.
Another issue: How often do we say, “I understand,” only to add: “I’ve dealt with ___ too. It’s so tough. I never thought I’d get through it.”
Look at what’s happened. The conversation has shifted to being focused on yourself rather than the other person. Hardly sympathetic.
Let’s take care, then, to check and see if we’re really listening. Affirm rather than presume. Instead of saying, “I understand,” say, “That’s hard.”
Try to keep quiet. Don’t worry about speaking. Body language says plenty—a nod, the look in your eyes, squeezing somebody’s hand….
Above all, be present. That’s the best gift you can give.
Amber writes from the bunker of her living room. There she hunkers down with her laptop and a blanket while keeping an eye and ear tuned in to the activity of family life. Music set on loop keeps her energy flowing as she muses on the deeper happenings of ordinary life and what food to restock the fridge with.