During a conversation when someone is sharing their suffering with you, and you are heartfully listening, how do you truly signal that you’re fully present to, and with, them?
Being fully present with another human being in their suffering is not the same as “I get it”, because I don’t believe anyone can truly “get” another person’s suffering. Though there may be similarities, suffering is fundamentally, an intimately private affair. Even assuming that you can walk in their shoes, it remains that both your feet are different. If you buy into that premise, logically then “I understand …” becomes an improbability. For that reason, phrases I avoid: “I understand …”, “It must be …”, “I get it …”
Instead, the reflection sentence is comprised of 3 components.
Step 1: Tentative guessing
First, I begin with “sounds like …” or “seems like …” or “I can imagine …” in a tentative tone. Tentative in the sense of guessing, because I can only ever guess and it gives the speaker an opportunity to say “no, that’s not what I meant …” This correction is NOT about me getting it wrong, because I may have fully understood what was shared, but the speaker, in listening to my reflection may feel “yes, I did say that but in listening to your reflection, it’s not what I really think / feel …”
PS. Personally, I prefer not to use the word “I” in these conversations as a way to retain focus on the other person. However, if you find it difficult, then “I can imagine …” is probably a more honest expression than “I understand …” That being said, compassionate conversations are neither an exercise in semantics nor being “holier” than thou, i.e. if the other person wishes to hear from you that you “get it” and/or you’re finding it challenging not to express yourself in this way, then by all means.
It is the spirit, and not the letter, of the compassionate script that matters.
Step 2: Name the emotion
Second, I name the emotion I believe was displayed by the speaker, e.g. “Wow, seems like you were angry that …”, or “Yeah, I can imagine why you would feel sad that …” A critical point to note here is that I am naming an emotion, and not a false emotion, aka judgmental interpretation reflected in words such as betrayed or disappointed. Betrayal is an act that trigger the emotions of anger or fear. Disappointment is a judgment, and beneath that judgment may be the emotions of sadness or fear.
To name a fake emotion is to feed the suffering, whereas naming an emotion is to touch on a silent truth from which the journey of freedom may begin.
For the sake of analytical clarity, an emotion may be understood as a hormonal cocktail of various chemicals that is released into your bloodstream in response to an external stimulus. The physiological impact of that hormonal cocktail in your bloodstream may be increased heart rate, quickened breathing, pupils dilating, blood being redirected to your prefrontal cortex etc. Feeling is a word we attach to the bodily sentation to (abstractly) name the impact of the combined physical sensation.
For more on emotion, click here.
Step 3: Share observable facts
Third, I share a summary of observable facts, not an interpretation, e.g. “I can imagine that you feel sad that it was the third time you were not offered the promotion you applied for” or “Sounds like you’re angry that in spite of leaving all those messages, she has still not responded” or “Seems like Alex’s comments has left you feeling fearful about your job security”. In other words, an observable fact is one that anyone, when presented with the same set of ‘evidence’ will come to the same conclusion. Diving a bit deeper:
- Not being offered a promotion is a fact that can be verified because another person was promoted instead, whereas an interpretation would be “your company thinks you’re not ready”.
- Not responding to messages can be observed from messaging history, whereas an interpretation would be “… she’s ignoring you”.
- Alex’s comments is a fact if it may be verified by email history, whereas an interpretation would be “Alex’s criticisms …” because there may be some who will not interpret Alex’s words as criticism.
Your artful reflection is an opportunity for the speaker to listen deeply to themselves, both what was said and what was not said. It is categorically not about you getting anything right / wrong. Remember, this is not about you. And to finish? Silence.
PS. If you are curious about how I came to compassion, click here 🌹