"I know just how you feel," I empathized. I shared how something similar had happened to me, and why I had responded the same way.
He sat back in his chair, glanced around, and changed the subject.
Where did I go wrong? I thought I had been emotionally intelligent. I thought I had empathized, put myself in his shoes, and shown I understood and shared his feelings.
Nope. I had only assumed I understood his feelings. Sure, I knew the situation, but I didn't ask how he felt. Instead I told him how I felt about a similar situation.
And figured he felt the same.
Which happens a lot more often than we think. According to research published in Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, we tend to assume that other people share our feelings about similar experiences.
That's especially true when talking to people we know reasonably well; the better we know someone, the more we make that assumption.
According to the researchers:
We argue that people engage in active monitoring of strangers' divergent perspectives because they know they must, but that they "let down their guard" and rely more on their own perspective when they communicate with a friend.
The result? We listen a little less closely. We ask fewer questions. We overestimate how well we understand what people will say -- and overestimate how well they understand what we say.
Even knowing that we tend to do that doesn't really help: Taking a step back to reflect on what the other person thinks and feels can further decrease the accuracy of our assumptions.
Because it still requires making assumptions.
In short, trying to be emotionally intelligent made me less emotionally intelligent.
What should I have done? Ask simple questions. How the situation made him feel. How he responded. How it turned out. Instead of saying something like, "I know that feels terrible, because the same thing has happened to me," I should have said, "That sounds like it would feel terrible."
I shouldn't have talked about me. I should have listened, and encouraged him to talk about him.
Because empathy is a noun.
Not a verb.
The next time you're tempted to put yourself in someone else's shoes, make sure you put on shoes you would want to wear. The ones that want to be heard. The ones that want to be understood. The ones that realize every experience, no matter how likely to be shared in a general sense, is still unique in specific.
The best way to truly understand another person's thoughts and feelings is to encourage them to share their thoughts and feelings.
Especially when that person is someone you know fairly well.