Changing “I can relate…” to “I can’t, but I care”


by Tim Paauw

If you know of someone with autism, depression, anxiety, or another non-visible diagnosis, you may have heard them share a comment or story that may highlight one of the daily challenges within their diagnosis. Perhaps in that moment you aren’t quite sure how to respond and offer what the person might perceive as a worthless comment like “I can relate… I had that when_____.” (unless you are diagnosed with that exact same thing and they are aware of it, be cautious to share a momentary story as a connection to someone’s larger daily journey)

Here are a few example scenarios:

  • Your friend with autism says: “I’m sorry I can’t come to the fireworks on the 4th of July with the group of our friends. The crowd and noise can really overwhelm me and I may meltdown or shut-down. I better pass.”You might be tempted to respond with: “Oh, I totally get it. I can relate because I don’t always like loud noises either.” (Not believable, since you are hoping to go to the fireworks – this may make the person feel like their emotion/situation is being minimized or misunderstood)
  • You colleague with depression says, “As much as this topic is important, I can’t attend the meeting today. I am not feeling up to it.”You might be tempted to respond with: “No worries, I can relate. I was tired earlier today too.” (Your comment may be vastly undervaluing the true nature of the issue that the person LIVES with an overwhelming exhaustion and regrets not being able to attend the meeting)

(Relate to the person, Not to the moment)
What if instead, you responded to these types of situations giving the message that empathy is NOT in relating to the moment, but rather that you relate to the person and want to be caring by supporting them in their challenge or THROUGH that moment.

Instead of “I can relate…”, try using “I can’t relate, but I care. I not quite sure what to do or say but want you to know how important you are to me, do you have thoughts on how I can help?” (Perhaps offer a suggestion through question form to show this value. In the example for work above you could offer to your colleague “How about I take good notes and we enjoy a cup of coffee  together tomorrow so I can catch you up to speed, would that be helpful?”

I believe there is a powerful empathy when someone affirms a challenging comment with an admission that “I  don’t think I  fully understand what you feel, but I want to help because you matter to me.” … wherever the conversation leads after that comment, you have likely made that person FEEL valued and they won’t forget it.

What if we saw each person we interact with as beautiful, because he or she is made in God’s image – pausing to weigh our response and the value it will have in affirming them rather than the moment? What if we were to admit sometimes that we don’t always understand, we might never understand, and sometimes can’t even be sure we have a helpful thing to provide but love them and want to show that we care (perhaps adjusting plans at times or being okay with them passing on plans and knowing you support them in doing so). In doing this, what perhaps the message we sent is: “I don’t know how you feel, but I believe you are beautifully created by our loving God and I value you.” Maybe in this genuine vulnerability we see greater awareness, stronger compassion, and truer relationships form. At times, the conversation may end with “Thanks for asking, but I don’t have any great suggestions. I just want to pass on this event.” I believe in that response, one should still know there was value in that interaction and, at times, accepting this request is showing you care.

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