The words hit me like a hurricane: "I know how you feel."
They're right there on pages 80 and 81 of my colleague Justin Bariso's new book about emotional intelligence. They're simple words, and real--and yet as Justin writes, they're also absolutely the wrong thing to say to those who confide in you with their problems or fears.
These situations are tough, sometimes. You've been trusted. You want to develop rapport. You want to act the way somebody with real emotional intelligence would act.
You want to help.
Yet, rather than creating a connection, "I know how you feel" and other phrases like it build a wall between you and the other person.
The phrase suggests that you don't truly understand what the other person feels at all. (Really, how could you?) It suggests that you feel the need to turn the conversation toward your experience, not his or hers, and that ultimately you don't really care about that person's concerns after all.
In other words, this five-word phrase sends a message that's 100 percent the opposite of what you intend.
So don't say, "I know how you feel." Here's what to do instead.
Shift vs. support
If you've read this far, I suspect you really do care about people. But like me perhaps, you don't always realize the true effects of your words.
The solution, as sociologist Charles Derber suggests, and Celeste Headlee summarizes, is to gauge your responses in real time, and ask yourself whether you're offering a "shift response" or a "support response."
What's the difference?
A shift response involves an attempt to guide the conversation toward your life experiences, and away from the experiences of the person you're ostensibly listening to and perhaps even trying to help.
A support response sets aside your ego, and instead keeps the focus on the other person's feelings and experience.
A few examples will make this very clear. In each case below, just imagine that a friend or colleague opens a conversation with the highlighted statement. Then think about how each response would make him or her feel.
1. "My boss doesn't respect me."
- Shift response: "I went through the exact same thing last year. I wound up leaving and finding a better job."
- Support response: "I'm sorry to hear that. What makes you feel that way?"
2. "If I could just get organized, I'd have the world on a string."
- Shift response: "I know--I have the same problem."
- Support response: "What do you think stops you from being organized?"
3. "I'm so sad since my breakup."
- Shift response: "You just need to get back out there and start dating again."
- Support response: "What do you think stops you from being able to move forward?"
Derber calls the whole phenomenon, at least the part in which well-meaning people shift the discussion to their own experience, "conversational narcissism."
Is that a $20 phrase to describe a $1 problem? Maybe. But it does make it clear.
"I can imagine..."
As Justin puts it in his book, the successful strategy to communicate effectively and leverage emotional intelligence requires avoiding phrases like these:
- "I know exactly how you feel."
- "I've been through this before."
- "I completely understand; or, I get it."
And replacing them instead with things like the following:
- "I'm sorry that happened."
- "I can imagine how you may feel."
- "Thanks for sharing this. Tell me more."
Actually, I might take issue even with "I can imagine how you may feel." But we'll leave it in.
Just remember that the whole point here is to acknowledge how hard it is to really put yourself in someone else's shoes, and instead make clear that you have empathy.
You're trying to understand--even as you acknowledge that full success might not ever be possible. The true connection that you're both looking for comes with the well-communicated attempt.