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No, you don't understand how they feel


As nurses, and as people, we want to comfort others, show that we care and empathise with their situation. But often we go about this in the wrong way.


Sharing our experiences with others so they don’t feel isolated is understandable, but I have a problem with the phrase “I understand how you feel” and variations thereof, including “I know what you’re going through”. No matter how similar your situation may seemn with a patient, your experiences of it are not the same; our perception taints everything we do, be that through rose-tinted glasses or through a half-empty or half-full approach.

Often saying “I know how you feel” or “I understand” cuts off patients or friends before they can share their stories, worries, frustrations or emotions. They need someone to listen and whether you understand or not should be no concern in the matter.

Human-beings are programmed to be self-centred; the world truly does revolve around us because it is our brain that processes the sensory information our environment throws at us. And because of this we can have a terrible habit of making every issue relevant to our lives when it’s not necessarily helpful. Often, comparing a patient or friend’s situation to our previous experiences has no true value in providing comfort and reassurance - vocally, at least.

How did you feel? Why did you feel that way? What can I do to help? These are much more beneficial questions.

Think of your most trusted friends, your confidants; what makes them special? In part, it is surely their ability to listen. It’s likely not their ability to talk over you, and certainly not to inadvertently dismiss your feelings.

Many people I know have experienced anger from patients or family members of patients when they have said “I know how you feel”. Families experiencing trauma, worry and sadness do not wish to hear this, and it can evoke reactions that you, as a healthcare professional, are not prepared to deal with. Of course, we never intentd to offend but careless comments to families who are trying to cope are not conducive to a positive relationship and you can expect a negative reaction. Healthcare professional or not, everybody wants to be considered reliable and helpful and trustworthy to those around them, and in order to be that person we need to be conscious of the statements we make.

We all have different perspectives on the world and react accordingly. Therefore, we cannot truly understand how another individual feels - but we can certainly empathise, support, listen and comfort. It is often not about us, and nor does it need to be.

So please, cut “I know how you feel” and “I understand what you’re going through” out of your repertoire and replace them with comforting silence, honesty, and empathy as well as simple and non-overbearing open questions; it will have a remarkable affect on your relationships with people..

Lucy Cleden-Radford is Student Nursing Times’ learning disability branch student editor


Readers' comments (2)

  • Great blog Lucy! I think carefully before I speak to families as I don't know exactly how they feel so I don't say I do. I might relate to some of it or be able to imagine but I am not them.
    I have found being matter of fact, yet sensitive and respectful works well - no one needs meaningless platitudes but it can take time, experience and careful judgement to learn what to say at difficult times.

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  • I absolutely love this as what you are describing is my absolute bug bear.

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