I Understand But Not Really

A few weeks ago I was having a conversation with a friend.  Now I’ve known this friend a long time, though we’ve not always been the type of friends to have touchy/ feely conversations.  This friend has gone through good times and bad.  This friend has had relationship troubles and has recovered.  This friend suffers from a familiar disorder that a lot of people suffer from: he uses the words “I understand”.

Oh my friends, unless you can truly mean that with life experience to back it up, your response to someone else’s crisis should be “that sucks” and then maintain radio silence.  Tsk-tsk a bit and then silence.  Even go so far as to repeat “that sucks”.  But under no circumstances do you utter the un-utterable “I understand.”  That my friends is a ticket to trouble.  This friend ? He’s been riding the train quite a bit lately but I think he’s getting back on the right track.

So we had a talk.  Not a long one,  not particularly serious or critical.  We just came to an agreement that in future discussions where he had no life experience to draw upon, through no fault of his own, he was not to try to be sympathetic.  That is the same as saying I understand and we’ve established that that’s bad.  You can try to be empathetic but that’s bordering on buying the ticket to Understandville.  So we just avoid this whole train analogy and get off at “that sucks”.  It’s simple, it’s effective, it conveys empathy without implying false understanding and it works.

People feel heard when you say that sucks and you have no idea what it’s like to be in their shoes.  It was one of the best things a friends’ mom said to me when my dad died.  She, at 50-something, still had her dad and her mom.  She had no idea what it was like to lose a parent at 20 and she didn’t pretend to.  It was a really life changing lesson for me that was so simple.  It was so freeing to hear that.  Such a release because it summed things up so succintly.  I have never forgotten the power of “it sucks”.

So I urge you all, when you feel the need to crawl inside someone else’s experience and unintentionally make it your own: don’t. Stop. Wait.  Unless you have truly had the same experience, practice the art of “that sucks”.  The odd cluck of empathy goes a long way, a concerned look about the brow, and even a pat on the hand or a hug would all be acceptable accompaniements to “that sucks”.  Sort of like the mayonnaise to the fry.  A little different but tasty none the less.  Riding that train to Sympathyville will get you nothing but a whole mess of trouble whereas the “that sucks” express will find you with nothing but a smile on your face and an appreciative friend riding beside you.

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