Use This One Phrase to Develop Empathy

Use This One Phrase to Develop Empathy November 30, 2023

“I know how you feel” is the worst thing you can tell someone who’s struggling. What’s the one phrase you can use instead to develop empathy?

Two opposing faces with opposing attitudes
Image by John Hain from Pixabay


When someone shares their struggles with you, the last thing you should say is “I know how you feel.” That’s because you don’t know how they feel. Even if you have been through something similar, you have never been them and are not capable of walking in their shoes. Is there something better you can say?


“I Can Only Imagine”

In a recent de-escalation training I attended, trainer Jesus M. Villahermosa, Junior recommend generating synthetic empathy towards a person with one simple phrase: “I can only imagine.” No, I’m not talking about the Mercy Me song about going to heaven. The phrase “I know how you feel” seems disingenuous and has the potential of angering the person you’re trying to help. But the phrase “I can only imagine” helps in two ways.


This Phrase Generates Synthetic Empathy

First, this phrase generates synthetic empathy within yourself. While you can never truly know how they feel, you can do your best to consider what it might feel like for them. Your imagination is an imperfect tool, but it will help you attempt understanding. When someone comes to you for comfort, use your imagination to explore how you would feel in the same situation. While you will never really know how they feel, through the power of imagination you can get some sense of it.


This Phrase Notifies the Other Person that You’re Trying

The second thing this phrase does is it notifies the other person that you’re trying to understand. When you say, “I know how you feel,” you’re not making any effort at all. You presume to know what’s going on in their mind. The phrase “I can only imagine” lets them know that you are making an effort.


A De-Escalation Tool

This simple phrase is great when you are trying to de-escalate a conflict. Maybe you are a manager, handling customer complaints. Or a nurse, trying to calm a difficult patient. Or a law enforcement officer attempting to prevent violence. Maybe you’re a family member trying to avoid conflict. When the other person is escalated and filled with mounting anxiety, the last thing you want to do is set them off. “Look, I know how you feel” is the last thing you want to say. It will just make the situation worse. When you tell them, “I can only imagine,” you are letting them know that you appreciate the difficult position they are in, without pretending full understanding.


Use This One Phrase to Develop Empathy

“I can only imagine” is more than just a phrase. You can use this one phrase to develop synthetic empathy within yourself. If you actively engage your imagination to think about what it must feel like to be that disgruntled customer, that worried patient, that angry citizen, or that upset family member, you will come a long way toward seeing their motivations. If you can imagine what it must feel like to be in their situation, then perhaps you can come up with a creative solution that is tailored to their needs.


Sympathy vs. Empathy

Sometimes it’s difficult to have sympathy for a person with whom you disagree. It’s tough to feel for someone who has been hurtful to you or others. The difference between sympathy and empathy is this: sympathy is feeling for someone, while empathy is feeling with someone. It may be difficult to feel for someone who’s harmed people, or who is causing you to have a bad day. Sympathy may be hard to come by—but empathy is something you can develop with the key of your imagination. Try it and see how it works.


For related reading, check out my other articles:

About Gregory T. Smith
I live in the beautiful Fraser Valley of British Columbia and work in northern Washington State as a behavioral health specialist with people experiencing homelessness and those who are overly involved in the criminal justice system. Before that, I spent over a quarter-century as lead pastor of several Virginia churches. My newspaper column, “Spirit and Truth” ran in Virginia newspapers for fifteen years. I am one of fourteen contributing authors of the Patheos/Quoir Publishing book “Sitting in the Shade of another Tree: What We Learn by Listening to Other Faiths.” I hold a degree in Religious Studies from Virginia Commonwealth University, and also studied at Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond. My wife Christina and I have seven children between us, and we are still collecting grandchildren. You can read more about the author here.
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