When you’re trying to connect with someone on a personal level who’s going through a rough patch, it can feel right and even natural to talk in ways that on the surface seem sympathetic or empathetic. But if you’re not careful, words of encouragement can transform a kind and gentle moment into a relationship disaster.
For instance, it’s said time after time at a funeral: “I understand what you’re going through...” Last week, two very close friends suffered the loss of family members. One lost his mother; the other lost her brother. Both were understandably distraught. Years ago I lost my father. Thinking back on that day as I watched my two friends go through their own experiences, it occurred to me that since I lost my dad (many years ago) I understand what they are going through.
But I don’t. Unless I’m prepared to do a whole lot of listening while they share with me how they moved through life with their loved one, I can never truly understand what they’re going through. That’s because my personal experiences with dad were different from how my male friend experienced life with his mother, or in the case of my female friend, with her brother.
To say I understand without listening closely to friends’ unique experiences and feelings, I’m doing my relationships with them a grave disservice. I can say, “I have had my own experience losing a loved one,” but cannot simply say, “I understand what you’re going through.”
Like it or not, there’s no one-size-fits-all when it comes to experiences. Even when they seem the same from the outside, personal realities can be wildly different. Take another well-intended yet flawed assumption: “I know what you’re going through as a [Hispanic, gay, blind, poor, overweight, etc.] person.” While often well-meaning, such statements can come off patronizing and even hurtful in ways that leave a person feeling marginalized or unseen as an individual.
As an African American, you’d think I’d have a PhD in understanding what it’s like to be black in America. But I can’t speak for every black person. The best I can say is, I understand what it’s like for me to be black in America. My truth about being black is based on my experiences. Sure, I can cite personal cases of happiness, joy, discrimination and racism similar to what other African Americans might experience. But my personal reality can be wildly different from someone else.
I am a male, grew up with one sister in a two-parent household that encouraged education in a way that conditioned my thinking such that college was a no brainer. Another black person might be female, raised with eight siblings and a single parent who stressed the importance of going to work as soon as possible to help support the needs of the family.
There are other differences. Some African Americans have a lighter skin shade. Others hold a darker hue. In America, skin tone can impact the way a person is treated, consciously and unconsciously. I listened to R&B as a kid. Another black person might have been raised listening to gospel or blues. Or country. But this column isn’t about me being black. It’s about being human, the uniqueness that comes with it. And the hazards of forgetting that fact.
So the next time you’re tempted to state how you understand how a person feels about something, don’t. Instead, ask questions (if appropriate). Work to seek meaning beyond your own. What in your world might seem obvious could be less so in another man’s. Or woman’s. Or child’s.