18

Recently I have been in a position where a friend of mine has been going through difficult times and has come to me as a shoulder to cry on and/or for emotional support. During these times I find myself saying "I know" a lot in response to their statements. Specifically, these are statements about their feelings on situations that neither I nor they have a direct power to change, this is simply them needing to vent/rant/receive sympathy.

For example:

Them: "I am feeling super overwhelmed and I just don't know what to do"
Me: "I know, I know, and I'm here to support you"

In the past, a (former) significant other of mine told me that my usage of the phrase "I know" in such situations makes me seem condescending or that I am invalidating their feelings, almost as if I am implying that the feelings are obvious and they are wasting my time by telling them to me.

This, of course, is not at all what I want to convey. When I say "I know" I mean it as a way of expressing my understanding and sympathy, that I see their emotions as valid and, to the best of my ability, understand their hardship.

Question:

How can I convey this same sentiment, of sympathy, understanding, and support, without using the phrase "I know" which may unintentionally portray condescension or dismissal? I am looking for a similarly short phrase that I can try to replace "I know" with in my vocabulary.

  • 1
    I'm curious. Why not just omit the "I know, I know"? "I'm here to support you" or "I'm here for you" (assuming these are accurate and sincere statements) seem adequate on their own. – Derek Elkins Feb 1 '18 at 8:52
  • 2
    Please don’t write answers in comments. It bypasses our quality measures by not having voting (both up and down) available on comments, as well as having other problems detailed on meta. Comments are for clarifying and improving the question; please don’t use them for other purposes. – Tinkeringbell Feb 2 '18 at 9:44
31

When people are venting, they need to hear that you're accepting and listening to them. You've already recognized that "I know" probably isn't the best way, so let's think about how we can voice this without saying "I know".

Validate them & show you're listening.

Tell them that they're right, not that you've already heard it. Make it clear that you're accepting what they say. This way, they feel like they're making an honest connection with you and you're open to them. Echo their feelings back to them.

  • From what you've told me, your [work/experience/family life] does sound really overwhelming.

You say that you want something short but not why. If you're looking for filler, sometimes it's better to wait until they're finished before responding rather than trying to interrupt them with your own thoughts. If you want something brief that shows the same validation, you can try one of these instead, but I think the longer version will show that you're actually listening rather than just performing the equivalent of "there, there"

  • I hear [what] you [are saying and that you are struggling].
  • I see that [you're going through difficulties].
  • I understand [what you are telling me and that you are overwhelmed].

The important thing is to make this fit in your own voice.

The concept of echoing is described in some detail in Conversation Peace: The Power of Transformed Speech (Google Books) by Mary A. Kassian. An excerpt reads:

When we echo, we bounce back to others the messages they have conveyed to us. Paraphrasing is one way to echo a message. Paraphrasing echoes back the verbal message. It involves accurately and succinctly restating the message in our own words. Echoing is not parroting. If you make a habit of merely parroting the sender's message, the sender will simply get annoyed. When we echo, we restate in our own words what we have heard. We convey what we have understood.

Kassian pairs "echo" with "inquire" as the other part of the equation - don't just show that you're listening by echoing them - show them that you're open to hearing more by asking for more. Inquiries should be open-ended questions that invite more information without being defensive.

So, be more involved and show it by echoing what your friend is saying rather than just looking for quick utterances and asking them more about their situation. When someone's really struggling, being brief with them can feel like you don't have time for them.

  • 2
    I like this answer, and just to add my experience taking myself out of the response has gotten good results, as in your first quote box. So not even "I hear what you're saying, that sounds really difficult" but instead "That sounds really difficult". Inserting a statement about having fully grasped the speaker's situation can have the same effect as saying "I know", though maybe less often. – Upper_Case-Stop Harming Monica Feb 1 '18 at 19:42
  • I have been really bad about saying "I know" in the past, just as a vocal habit--not even meaning that I know or understand anything in particular about the problem. It was hard practice, but I've changed my habit to automatically start with, "That sounds..." It helps me empathize directly, rather than through my own experiences, which is better overall and also keeps me from talking myself into awkward corners. – kmc Feb 2 '18 at 17:00
17

I'm sorry.

I'm sorry, that really sucks, and I'm here if you need someone to talk to or anything.

I'm sorry isn't always used for apologies when you've done something wrong. You can be sorry that someone is in a difficult situation. You can be sorry that they are hurting. You can be sorry that there is nothing you can do to help.

Saying sorry is a way of showing that you feel the same thing they do.

  • 3
    In my experience, "I know/understand" is frequently met with "no you don't." I've never had a bad reaction to "that sucks, I'm sorry." – TemporalWolf Jan 31 '18 at 22:27
  • I have occasionally had a negative reaction to this. "What do you have to be sorry for? It isn't your fault." – Brett Stottlemyer Feb 1 '18 at 17:44
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    @BrettStottlemyer on the rare occasions that I've got that response, I just usually say one of the examples I've given. "It's not my fault but I'm still sorry you're hurting/in this situation/I can't do anything". I find "what are you sorry for" is really just a knee jerk reaction where they're really asking "do you actually care?" Or "why would you care?". If someone is hurting and they aren't really accustomed to being comforted, then this response is not really about them misunderstanding the usage of the word but rather their insecurities coming out. – user6818 Feb 1 '18 at 18:41
11

One thing that may help is to avoid "I" statements altogether, keeping the focus very firmly on your friend and their statements. It also helps to approximately echo the level of intensity of the other person's statements. Think of this as the interpersonal version of the writer's advice to "show, don't tell." In this case, the goal is to clearly demonstrate that you hear and understand what your friend is saying, rather than claiming to do so.

One way to do this is to repeat back what your friend says, hopefully with a shift in vocabulary:

Them: "I am feeling super overwhelmed and I just don't know what to do"
You: "Wow, you sound really swamped."

That can be hard to pull of naturally, and is kind of verbose if what you really want is something to murmur in between hiccups. For something even shorter, you can consider commenting on what they've said. For example:

  • That sounds difficult
  • How awful
  • That's terrible
  • That sucks
  • Oh, wow.
  • Oh, no!

Note that these aren't meant to be deep expressions of your understanding; rather, they're simple verbal validations of what your friend is saying.

You can also be more specific, depending on what your friend is actually saying. If they are complaining about another person, you could comment on that person's behavior ("sounds like a jerk move" or just "what a jerk"); if the topic is a situation, you can say something like "what a mess".

As noted above, you want to keep your commentary calibrated to their feelings. What that means is that you don't want to be much more outraged on your friend's behalf than they are, just like you don't want to be dismissive of their feelings (I think you already know that). So if they've been talking fairly calmly about having a hard time getting along with a co-worker, something like "that's tough" is probably going to be better-received than "that @#$!!"

It can be really hard to keep yourself out of the conversation this way; I know I struggle with wanting the person to know that I am here for them. But often I've found that the more I try to express just how helpful and understanding I am, the more the conversation gets derailed, in contrast to when I stick to appreciating the other person's point of view. I've also experienced this from the other side—it's very powerful to feel like the entire focus of the other person's attention.

8

You don't want to have a drop in replacement for "I know". If you're constantly repeating a phrase people are going to notice and it's usage will become noise.

"I know" doesn't do a good job at expressing understanding. Try tailoring your phrases to the situation. If you want to express understanding say something specific. Say something that expresses that requires you to synthesize the information they have provided you with, to show that you are thinking about it instead of just repeating information back at them.

In the past I have gotten called out, using a rotating collection of phrases when expressing sympathy to friends. It wasn't that the words I was using were wrong. It was that they didn't express any actual understanding of the complexities of the situation.

  • 1
    I'm not entirely convinced that "I know [description of situation here]" is really any better. It still can come across as condescending because it basically infers the topic is done. "Yes, I get it, I understand, let's move along to other things". – user6818 Jan 31 '18 at 21:32
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    @Stacey It depends on the description of the situation. If someone says "My parent just died." saying "I know your dad just died." is counterproductive. However "I know the two of you were close." shows a deeper understanding of the situation. I've edited my answer to indicate that. – sphennings Jan 31 '18 at 21:34
  • @sphennings you might add this example to your answer as it shows your intention very well. (: – Kinaeh Feb 1 '18 at 6:31
3

Generally people understand that you are trying to convey sympathy when you say "I know". If you're looking for alternative phrases, you can use:

I'm very sorry that you're going through a tough time.

I wish I knew how to help because I don't want you to feel upset/sad/overwhelmed.

I wish I knew what to say to help.

If you're willing to do more than be an emotional support, you can ask:

What can I do? Can I help you with anything?

Your friend will speak up or just convey gratitude that you offer support. Sometimes they just need an ear to listen to them or a shoulder to cry on. It can feel awkward but sometimes (quiet) company conveys more than saying random platitudes.

2

I feel like this would work better as a comment, but apparently I lack the appropriate amount of reputation to do that. I will try to provide a brief summary of the video, in the event the video is removed. The video is brief, about 3 minutes, and conveys a lot of helpful information.

Brene Brown on Empathy

Important points from the videos:

  • Empathy is not sympathy
  • Empathy drives connection, sympathy drives disconnection
  • Four qualities of empathy requires: perspective taking, staying out of judgement, recognizing emotion in other people, and communicating.

In order to experience empathy, you must connect with something inside yourself that knows that feeling.

Rarely, if ever, does an empathetic response begin with "At least". "At least" is a way of trying to put a silver lining on something and rarely demonstrates true empathy, as you can see in these examples:

  • "I had a miscarriage." "At least you know you can get pregnant."
  • "My marriage is falling apart." "At least you have a marriage."

People try to do this in very difficult conversations, because we want to make things better, but as the video says:

If I share something with you that's very difficult, I'd rather you say "I don't even know what to say. I'm just so glad you told me."

Because the truth is, rarely can a response make something better. What makes something better is connection.

TL;DR You should be trying to make a connection and not trying to "make something better".

0

"OK" is what i would say, keeping eye contact. Often nothing else, except the other is in a really bad state and concrete actions are needed. Or except the other asks a concrete question.

"Ok" says both: "I heard you and i understood" as well as: "I have no opinion about this and dont want to force up anything on you. Im not even sorry about this, it is how it is".

This will have two effects:

  • Empathy: The other feels that he is in a friendly, listening enviroment.
  • Freedom: The other feels that no one hinders him to solve this problem on his own.

These two factors are enough in 80% of cases.

Once a young girl from my chess club said to me: "I have no friends at school and no one likes me". My answer was just "OK". She then asked: "What can i do about it?" (i train some of those kids and they are used to me knowing all the answers in chess, which is obviously not the case in other topics). I suggested some things to her and she asked more "How" questions. We talked for a while about this and that.

Half a year later, she is now integrated at her school and has three best friends. I did nothing about this, she did this all on her own. Unfortunately she is not any more regulary coming to the club (she was a good scorer in her team), but i guess you cant have everything :)

-1

The question is, what are you trying to message by saying I know or anything else?

  • Either it's a filler, an automated phrase said because you feel you are supposed to say it or whatever, without a true meaning. Then nothing will work in long term.

  • Or you mean exactly that: I know it must be terrible, I know it hurts, I know ... The problem is that in general, this is not what makes people feel better.

  • Or you really care and you are willing to invest some time into caring. Then you can become a listener, and listen or ask for slightly more details, or even a lot more details if you are close to the other person. It takes some practice to recognize when to ask for more and when to stop, and in general it takes a lot of silence from you and quite some time. Because if someone feels super overwhelmed or whatever, they mostly need someone else to listen.

    The thing is that as people express themselves, they (1) sort out what they actually feel or mean (see Rubber duck debugging), (2) feel a psychological relief and (3) possibly receive some feedback.

Only you know what you are wanting and willing to do.

-2

In the past, a (former) significant other of mine told me that my usage of the phrase "I know" in such situations makes me seem condescending or that I am invalidating their feelings, almost as if I am implying that the feelings are obvious (...)

Adding to the great answers already given. I‘d like to highlight that meaning is given by the listener, and you cannot know what meaning they will give to what you say in advance.

Plus, nonverbal cues (tone of voice, speed, posture, gesture etc.) usually invite the listener to direct their meaning making process, so „I know“ can have substantially different effects as „I KNOW!!“.

Let me suggest an alternative route to trying to pre-determine meaning:

You might ask the person you are talking to for feedback:

I know, this must be terrible (...) - after a short pause - How is what I say for you?

Apart from you getting feedback, chances are that such question will invite the listener to shift their focus from their feelings towards the problem to their reaction to your consoling words, which should effect a change in feeling and hopefully a little distancing to the troubling perception of that situation.

Regarding feedback: in case they say that „I know“ is less than helpful for X, Y, Z, you might assure them of your genuine intention to support them and ask for their specific needs in coping with that situation.

This can have a very deep impact, shifting focus from „burden“ to „need that wants fulfillment“.

Going through a difficult situation, I guess I’d appreciate a genuine caring and interest from a friend over perfectly worded phrases.

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