How can we relate to others, so that we share in their experiences without oversimplifying or over-identifying with what the other person shares? Personal stories are unique, individually lived and crafted. We may have similar stories and experiences. And we are often connected through patterns, routines, retraced steps, interactions…the “Etch A Sketch” of life.
But when we say, “I hear you,” or “I understand,” do we risk oversimplifying another person’s experience?
Just as every experience is unique, so is the experience sharer. It may totally uplift another person’s day to hear that you get them, that you hear them, that you can relate to them, that you’ve been there, and that you understand. Sometimes that’s all we are looking for. Knowing and hearing for ourselves that another person – similar to or different from us – has gone through what we have gone through, even if in a distinct way or time.
Nevertheless, another experience sharer could close up when they hear, “Sure that makes sense” or “I got you, something like that happened to me before too,” — Are these responses borderline insensitive, or are they simply a way for us to respond and orient ourselves with another’s experience? Does culture, language, and dialect also play a role in how we respond and in what we deliberately choose to say?
I say absolutely, undoubtedly yes. Differences in communication styles across regions and across cultural and ethnic settings do affect our receipt of information, our story-telling, and our ability to relate. We should continually examine what connects us in the ways that we communicate. Voice intonation and pace of speech – regardless of spoken language – can dramatically change the meaning of what we say, when we choose to say it, and how it is received.
So I encourage us to listen, really listen, the next time we relate to someone else; and then hear how they respond. Is there a long pause? A change in expression? Are we beginning to retell their story for them?
Empathy isn’t learned overnight, but it is something that we can develop and work on. The best empathy teachers are our experiences – the ones that are unexpected, unplanned, and inadvertently arrived upon. We don’t manufacture it. Instead, empathy teaches us how to truly connect with someone else.