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3 phrases make you sound totally insensitive. Try these others to communicate with empathy

A therapist points out how common, seemingly innocent phrases like ‘I know how you feel,’ can have an impact on the person you’re talking to.

3 phrases make you sound totally insensitive. Try these others to communicate with empathy
[Source illustration: CalypsoArt/iStock]
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No amount of training could have prepared me for the challenges of providing teletherapy during the height of the pandemic. Almost every one of my clients noted feeling despondent due to a lack of social connection, an exacerbation of their existing mental health condition, Zoom fatigue, and blurred boundaries between work and personal time. And they weren’t alone: 36% of Americans feel “serious loneliness,” including 61% of young adults and 51% of mothers with young children.

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I can certainly relate. It was difficult adjusting to a pixelated screen without full body language. I found myself feeling burned-out and isolated right alongside them as I tried to harness my greatest tool: empathy.

Practicing empathy isn’t like taking off our masks once we’ve safely arrived home. Just because we are looking forward to the grand reopening doesn’t mean we can toss compassion to the side. In fact, many people feel they are being jolted back into the workplace after just having gotten the hang of virtual life. 

For this reason, I believe it’s extremely important that we all take responsibility in conveying empathy to one another. For employers leading the transition back to the office, using compassionate language can help employees internalize that language and talk to themselves—and their colleagues—more compassionately as well. In a time when 48% of professionals agree that communications have changed since the pandemic, and 40% feel the need to be “more professional” at work due to COVID-19, the power of an empathetic, casual conversation cannot be overlooked. 

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The implications of empathy stretch far beyond the workplace. For example, in the wake of the continued violence against the Asian American and Pacific Islander community, we must continue to make progress in monitoring our language to ensure it does not do harm. Data from writing assistant company Grammarly shows that the appearance of its COVID-19 suggestion, which offers alternatives to xenophobic references to the virus, decreased 90% year over year. 

“This sharp decrease suggests that people who were served these empathetic reminders were more cognizant of how they referred to the virus over time,” said Senka Hadzimuratovic, Grammarly’s head of communications. An important idea to keep in mind: Being a more compassionate communicator means having greater awareness of the language you’re using.

Even though inclusive communication is essential in both personal and professional settings, it’s easier said than done. To begin incorporating compassionate language into your everyday interactions, read on to find three simple phrases to use—and three others to avoid—in order to communicate empathetically. 

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Use these phrases

“I appreciate what you said about . . .”  

When something resonates with you personally, it is a kind gesture to let the other person know. Hearing that someone connects with what you said can be a nice foundation for future conversation and also signals that you are actively listening. Empathic communication signals understanding, which promotes vulnerability. This allows for a deeper connection, which prevents us from feeling isolated.

“I’m sorry that I misunderstood what you said.” 

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Even with our best intentions, we are imperfect and sometimes say or misinterpret something in a way that could be harmful or disruptive to our conversation. This phrase provides an opportunity to repair and continue building trust, which is a key pillar of empathy. In a workplace setting, acknowledging that a misunderstanding took place can decrease a sense of hostility and may help people feel less stigmatized about asking for professional and mental health support. 

“What I hear you saying is [. . .]. Did I get that right?”  

Summarizing is an effective way to help you process the information you just received while simultaneously helping the other person feel heard by sharing your takeaways. Following up with a question about how on- or off-base you were paves the way for taking an extra step when it comes to listening.

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Avoid saying these

“I know how you feel.” 

This might sound like the ultimate empathetic response, but be mindful of overidentifying with someone’s feelings. Assuming too much can actually be detrimental, especially if the person is not so sure you’ve been in their shoes. 

“This reminds me of the time I . . .” 

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Relating with your own experience might seem like a good way to show support, but be wary of centering the conversation on yourself when someone is trying to be vulnerable or talk about a difficult topic. Taking an active listening approach is probably a better option in these situations.

“You’ll be okay / You’ll get through it / It’ll all work out.” 

Shifting to a more positive mindset can be effective in some cases, but these phrases can be off-putting because of their minimizing undertones. Plus, most times people already know on a rational level that they’re going to be okay but are looking for more emotional support in the here and now.

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Together, empathy and communication can have an extraordinarily positive impact on mental health. Empathetic communication models the kind of self-talk we should engage in. When we hear how a friend or loved one talks to us, it serves as a reminder of the way we should be treating ourselves. And when we’re better able to care for ourselves, we can show up for our partners, our friends, and our jobs more effectively. We know words are powerful, so let’s use that power to our advantage and create a world where everyone can feel understood.


Kara Lissy, LCSW, is a clinical director of A Good Place.