In an episode of Two and a Half Men (a high-ratings US television sitcom), the rakish cad character played by Charlie Sheen discovers that he can easily manipulate others by solemnly saying to them, “I understand.”
When he first says it, other people believe him, and begin to gush their feelings to him. Of course, his empathy is faux, and so the comedy begins.
Empathy is Cognition Plus Connection
The best way to influence (not manipulate) others is for them to feel that you understand them.
Yet the key word in the preceding sentence is not ‘understand,’ but ‘feel.’
It is one thing to understand someone; it is quite another for them to feel understood.
A seller might perfectly understand a buyer’s needs; often, in fact, even better than the buyer. That doesn’t mean, unfortunately, that the buyer feels understood.
A consultant might perfectly understand what a client is going through, on all levels—including the deeply emotional issues facing the client. But even understanding the emotional issues of the client doesn’t guarantee the client will feel understood.
A common sales truism says, “People don’t care what you know, until they know that you care.”
Just because it’s a truism doesn’t mean it isn’t true. And it is, profoundly so. The point of listening is not what you hear–it is the act of helping another feel heard.
Why Saying “I Understand” is Arrogant
On the face of it, the statement “I understand” is the perfect expression of empathy. Unlike Charlie Harper (Charlie Sheen’s character in the sitcom), we usually mean it. We are sincere when we say it, so for me to suggest that ‘I understand’ is arrogant may sound insulting.
But think of it this way. The feeling of being truly understood is, by definition, something that must come from the one who is understood—not from the one doing the understanding. To assert that you understand how someone feels about their situation is to usurp their very role as object of the understanding.
It is not our right as advisors or sellers to tell someone we understand them; it is only they who can inform us that they feel understood. For us to make the claim ourselves is arrogant.
A Better Way to Express Empathy
We can never truly know another. All we can do is to guess at how we might feel in similar circumstances—and assume that they might feel likewise. The source of much tragedy—and comedy—comes from mistaken assumptions that others are exactly like us.
So, what is a better way to express empathy? How do we communicate, across the divide of individuality, a sense of connection with another? Here are a few ideas.
- That must feel…
- I can only imagine how that must be…
- I suppose if I were you I’d feel…
- Is that (difficult, easy, complicated…) for you?
- I think I might have a glimmer of what that means for you…
The particular words don’t matter as much as a combination of sincerity and a respect for the ineffable separateness of the other person.
Ironically, the way to convey connection is to acknowledge the impossibility of fully achieving it.