Make Others Feel Understood
I’ve read a number of books lately on a variety of different subjects – product management, business, parenting, negotiation. There’s a common theme in all of them when it comes to dealing with people problems:
Make that person feel heard and understood. Make them feel like you empathize with them. Make them feel like you care about their plight.
This is easy to brush off because we all think that we’re good at empathizing with other people. “I know you feel let down, but the reality is that this is in your best interest.” That statement is a failure. You are recognizing their experience, but you aren’t actually feeling it yourself.
I get a lot of time to practice this with my 3-year-old lately, and I’ve only recently realized that I need to approach all my relationships in this way. The only difference is that my 3-year-old lets me know with her actions in a very overt way that she isn’t feeling understood and empathized with. Adults hide these lonely feelings, whereas children act out in very obvious ways.
Here’s an example: when Kacey says, “Mom, I really want a lollipop right now!” there are two ways I can respond. One:
“I know you do, but you can’t have a lollipop every day. It’s not good for you.”
In her mind, she thinks, “She doesn’t really get me, she doesn’t understand how good a lollipop would be right now. She can’t possibly know what it’s like for me to be wanting a lollipop right now and she’s just saying no.”
What’s happening is that her desire is recognized, but not felt. And she knows this.
The alternative is something like this:
“Oh yeah, I bet a lollipop would be really good right now. That sounds tasty. Unfortunately, we can’t have them every day, but we’ll have one on another day.”
What do you think happens here? In her mind, she thinks, “Mom really understands what I’m feeling, she knows how good a lollipop would be right now. But I guess we can’t have one today, but I can look forward to one another day.”
Amazing! She’s not only recognized, she’s understood.
So what did we do? We channeled her inner desire to really truly empathize with her. We didn’t just see her feelings, we imagined what it would be like to be in her little body feeling those feelings. It’s amazing.
Everyone in life
For a while I’ve been putting these kinds of tactics to work with my daughter only. This need to empathize on a very visceral level was reserved only for the people whose rational brains weren’t quite developed yet.
What I’ve come to learn, though, is that we all have irrational brains that drive our feelings. Feelings are inherently irrational – we feel them regardless of whether or not we think they’re rational.
And so, we need to treat everyone we interact with in the same way. We are rational creatures, yes. We are also irrational creatures. Some people tend more to one side or the other, but feelings exist nearly ubiquitously, and they are incredibly important. And truly empathizing with our children, peers, relatives, and friends is the key to forging strong relationships based on trust and mutual experience.
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