Recently, I witnessed an interaction between a student and a staff member. The adult and the student were discussing a personal issue that the student was having and the student was getting increasingly frustrated. During the conversation the adult was trying their best to show empathy and kept saying, “I understand.” Finally, the student reaching a breaking point blurted out, “You don’t understand, you cannot understand.”
I think there is a great lesson for all of us to take out of this conversation. If an interaction is happening between a teacher to student, administrator to teacher, or friend to friend, it is truly impossible to completely understand what others are struggling with or going through. Instead of telling people we understand, we just need to take the time to listen.
Empathy and understanding are not the same, although we often confuse the two ideas. Empathy is discerning what others are thinking and feeling and responding in the appropriate way. This discernment requires us to actively listen and then support appropriately. Empathy does not require us to fully understand. It only requires us to respond in a way that makes the other person feel valued and supported.
The problem lies in our own experiences. We think we can understand certain situations as we relate them to our own personal experiences. This connection makes us feel like we understand what the other person is dealing with or going through. While many problems are common, people are unique. Each person’s experience in similar problems is often very different. Every person has gotten to each point in life with different amounts of support and levels of knowledge, therefore every experience is different. When we normalize problems and connect them to ourselves, we are not trying to understand for the person who needs help — we are trying to understand how our situation relates to theirs. This turns into advice about how we would handle a situation, rather than responding in a way to support others in dealing with and working through their situation.
As we support students, colleagues, friends during challenging times, stop telling them you understand. Instead, listen to understand how they feel, not just to explain how you remember feeling in a situation you believe is the same. While problems may not be unique, people most assuredly are. Don’t just tell them you understand, show them empathy to help them get through their struggles; a person to just listen is often enough to get them moving in the right direction. Knowing someone cares and is supportive goes a long way.