A reporter recently contacted me for a quote about things never to say at work. She expected me to say something like, “You look sexy in that suit” or “The boss’ husband is a beefcake,” but I offered two less obvious examples:
“I know how you feel”
But Jason, you’re thinking, we use these all the time. They are indelibly etched into our speech habits. What harm can they cause, and how could we ever hope to remove them from our vocabulary? You’re right. These are common expressions most everyone uses without a second thought—which means you are immune from judgment for past utterances. Going forward, however, if you say either of these, you will do so with full knowledge of their negative impact.
If you don’t want the responsibility of learning the negative impact of words and modifying your habits of conversation, I understand. See what that expression does to you? It drives you to think instantly and emphatically, No, you DON'T understand! At that point, I have lost you, and if you use that expression in conversation, you too will lose your audience.
“I understand” is a triggering expression in nearly every context, challenging listeners to automatically question your level of comprehension or empathy, especially if they are trying to communicate something important to you. Saying “I understand” leaves people feeling unheard, leads them to see you as dismissive or patronizing, feeds their anger, and makes them disengage from conversation.
Instead of telling your audience you understand, you can show them. Tapping into a person’s perspectives, motivations, values, expectations, or unmet needs—also called cognitive empathy—makes people feel heard, understood, and accepted. The following fictional conversation between Senator Kamala Harris and former Senator Al Franken differentiates stating understanding vs. demonstrating it.
“Sexual harassment and misconduct should not be allowed by anyone and should not occur anywhere” (she actually said this; everything that follows is artistic license). “Al, you need to step down.”
“I understand. Sorry.”
“Sexual harassment and misconduct should not be allowed by anyone and should not occur anywhere. Al, you need to step down.”
“I can see that my actions have hurt people and put my office and the Democratic Party in a terrible position, creating a negative perception that hurts the credibility and honor of Democrats and the Senate itself. The country and our party needed much more from me, and now you need me to correct the situation.”
If you were Kamala Harris, which of the following responses would you prefer? Would you even bother trying to continue a dialogue with Al Franken in Scenario 1?
If this topic is starting to make you feel defensive and uncomfortable, I know how you feel. Got you again! You have already reacted with the thought, No, you DON'T know how I feel! This expression triggers even stronger resistance than “I understand,” because the words “I know” imply certainty, and certainty about something as subjective as emotion comes across as presumptuous, arrogant, and insincere. People take great offense to this statement. Even if you are attempting to demonstrate emotional empathy, and your audience’s emotional state is obvious (e.g. furious), if you claim to know how they feel, you will lose them every time.
If you truly want to empathize with your audience, instead of presuming understanding of their perspectives or knowledge of their feelings, you can demonstrate cognitive empathy and follow that with emotional empathy. I will depict this with a fictional conversation between a Hawaii Emergency Management Worker and his supervisor.
“Pushing the wrong button and sending a false warning of an incoming ballistic missile was possibly the most boneheaded move in the history of bonehead moves.”
“You’re right. Millions of people were terrified for 38 minutes, went scrambling for cover, and might have compromised their own or others’ safety in the process, all for no reason. People are furious, some are traumatized, and most have lost trust in our ability to accurately warn them of future emergencies. Since my mistake caused all that, you must be terribly angry and disappointed with me. Did I leave anything out?”
After such an indefensible goof, the supervisor won’t tolerate defensiveness, dismissive statements of understanding, or presumptions of empathy. Fortunately, the worker acknowledges the mistake (which is undeniable and public), accurately describes some of the impact of his actions, and having developed that cognitive empathy, earns the right to name the supervisor’s feelings. His closing question also protects him. Asking if he left out anything, the worker continues to demonstrate curiosity and humility—the complete opposite of professing knowledge of the supervisor's feelings. He also gives his supervisor the opportunity to describe other issues, perspectives, and feelings related to the event, to which the worker can then respond with additional listening and cognitive/ emotional empathy.
In real life, it is very unlikely that this worker responded so effectively, because without training and considerable practice, almost no one can deliver a sincere and thorough empathic response when confronted with a damaging mistake. He probably went straight to abject contrition and pleading for his job. When the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency receives relentless public criticism and legal claims following this incident, its leaders will have to listen compassionately to disarm an outraged public. At this moment of reckoning, claiming understanding, presuming to know people's feelings, making excuses, and begging forgiveness won't cut it.
Jason Sackett helps professionals and companies manage workplace anger and complaints before they escalate, win back people they have wronged, and approach conflict with confidence and effective methods. If you're a business leader whose employees' actions have created public outrage against your company, he is dying to help you. To learn more about what Jason offers, read Compassion@Work, or visit ManagingUpset.com.