Stop me if you’ve heard this one.

“I get you.”

How about this one?

“I understand.”

Last one…

I’ve been exactly where you are.

In an effort to relate to others, many of us have learned these phrases. We think that it helps us to connect with and relate to others. On occasion, it does.

However, sometimes, it has the exact opposite effect.

Today, we continue to look for ways of becoming superhuman. In particular, learning the superpower of how to be a better human in the presence of other humans.

Can you relate?

Let’s set the scene.

  • You’re a manager.
  • You’re having a one-on-one with a team member.
  • They come to you with a problem. Something that is stressing them out.
  • They are frustrated.
two men talking

So, what do you do?

Obviously, you start by listening. Because you’re a manager who cares, you really want the other person to feel heard. You want them to feel comfortable, and even safe. You want to let them know that it will all be ok.

You think back to when you were in a similar situation. You want to let them know how you were right where they are, how you overcame what they’re going through, and how they will, too. You look past all of the ways in which your situations are different and unearth all of the places where you overlap.

Now that you’re ready…you relate.

“I hear you. I totally get it. I was in the exact same situation.”

Intent vs Outcome

In this scenario, you are intending to help the other person feel seen. You want to create a circle of trust. You imply: “you and me, we’re not so different.”

I’m not saying anything about this is inherently wrong. But, indulge the following question.

Is there a possible outcome of this approach, that could produce the opposite effect of your intention?

If you’re having trouble visualizing it, try to think about a time when someone tried to relate to you, but you felt like they clearly didn’t.

  • The trust fund kid who tells you they understand what it’s like to struggle when you’re talking about your student loans?
  • The parent who grew up in the 50’s and 60’s trying to tell you how they “get” the difficulties of growing up as if they too were glued to a smartphone, and trying to navigate a high school social life that includes TikTok and cyberbullying on Minecraft.
  • The boss, who relates to the loss of your parent just long enough to ask when you think you’ll be back at work?

In each of these situations, regardless of the actual parallels, do you feel like that person actually gets what YOU are going through? In each of those situations, do you get the sense that those people are trying to relate to you, or trying to relate you to themselves?

Should you relate?

In an effort to make others feel seen, we sometimes do the opposite. We put the spotlight back on ourselves. So instead of asking ourselves whether we can relate to someone, we might want to ask whether we should?

This is for every person who has ever responded when I am being vulnerable by sharing the reality of my ADHD, by telling me that they “get a little ADD sometimes” and then proceed to tell me about the time they browsed Reddit a little too long. That cute little anecdote doesn’t make me feel closer to them. It doesn’t make me feel like they can relate to what I just shared. It subtly invalidates the actual hardships 30+ years of masking ADHD has taken on my mental health and feelings of self-worth by turning it into some minor inconvenience.

stack of jigsaw puzzle pieces

Every person’s story is their own, and no matter how much you feel that you can relate to their story, that feeling is about YOU, not them.

I submit for your consideration that maybe it’s not about relating, maybe it’s just about caring.

What to consider saying instead

We don’t need to always have an answer. We don’t always need to relate. We don’t always have to have a similar story. Sometimes, we can just be curious. Sometimes we can just be present and attentive.

We can just care as the starting point.

In conclusion, ask more questions and care about the answer because the least we can do if we’re going to rush to say “I understand” is to do the bare minimum to make sure we’re telling the truth.

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