I understand. I understand what you mean. How often have you harmlessly said those words when someone was explaining something in an attempt to acknowledge what was said and convey your understanding. I’ve said those words many times in my personal and professional relationships. Empathy does allow us to imagine what it must feel like and find some common thread so that we can come to an understanding of whatever is going in that experience. As a social worker, I have a lot of empathy. Although I have experienced and seen a lot, how can I profess to really understand what someone is going through when I have not walked in their shoes? Are those words being used too loosely? Is it about truly understanding or a need to feel/appear knowledgeable or something else?
In the past, I worked as a mental health professional for years and I was careful about not saying that “I understand” to clients because I did not entirely. I knew the etiology of certain conditions along with statistical and demographic information, but in terms of what it felt like to be in my office with that specific story, I did not know. More importantly, I avoided saying “I understand” because I didn’t want to belittle anyone’s experience.
My goal was to engage so that I could earn trust, which would make our work together less painful and more productive. The quickest way to losing that trust is to come off as fake by saying things that aren’t totally true. There were lots of circumstances that led people to my caseload and one common element was that they were involved in the criminal justice system. And my clients were very sensitive to fakeness.
Even if I could relate to things said like, “I don’t like taking medications” or “I’m having a hard time juggling family, work, and school”, I avoided saying that “I understand”. There are details that make our stories unique even though they sound similar, and from my experiences, people don’t like you to assume that you know their story. It’s a turn off. My favorite thing to say in my authentic way was, “I hear what you are saying “. It worked for me because it let them know that I was listening without making assumptions. In some cases, I would say, “I can relate”, which I think is different than saying “I understand“.
With a close friend, I might have said that I did understand the reasoning for not liking to take medications, but would I really understand her reason(s)? That’s the question I will ask myself the next time I think about saying “I understand”. This will be a challenge in listening, asking follow up questions, and not making assumptions based on my own experiences.