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.

Closing Our Empathy Gaps

By Tim Paauw

“I DON’T have any empathy gaps!!”

This was my first reaction when reading about the concept of “empathy gaps” as part of a book study I am participating in professionally with the CLC Network. I imagine this is most people’s instinctive reaction when you first ponder the thought. That is because it is a term that by nature digs deep and hits our heart. Innately I imagine we all struggle with this at some level. Allow me to explain…

An empathy gap = a person’s relative inability to put themselves in the place of another person according to researchers John Hattie and Gregory Yates in their book Visible Learning and the Science of How We Learn.

On deeper reflection of this concept I realized that I’m full of empathy gaps, many of which are not intentional but out of ignorance. Often I may think, assume, and sometimes even recommend things to someone (or judge someone) without taking time to first ASK questions with the intention of learning/understanding. Each time I do this, I would suggest that I have an empathy gap according to the definition.

Let me share a few examples to assist in this concept related to our son’s autism challenges and empathy gaps we have seen in other people publicly:

  • When we enter a noisy restaurant with lots of televisions on the walls (you know the type of restaurant I’m referring to), our son Nolan can at times meltdown because of all the smells (food) mixing with sounds (televisions and conversations). His brain doesn’t filter all of this the same way as most people. Therefore, we have found the most effective way to help him enjoy a restaurant experience is to allow him to use a cell phone and watch a movie on Netflix while he eats. This gives him a close and central focus of sound/visual/textile all in one spot that helps him tone out the rest and filter down and calm down.
    • If you are someone who would stare at our family in the restaurant (it happens) and wonder why parents give a son their cell phone during dinner then you may have an empathy gap.
  • Our son Nolan HATES walking into any medical office because he has a memory can photographically recall his past experiences in a location. When we walk into any appointment for our children we carry a plastic bag in our pocket in case his anxiety gets the best of him and he needs the bag. Because he gets so worked up visibly (tears, grunting, pacing the room with hands over his ears) we do our best to sign-in and find a quiet space in the waiting area as soon as we are able.
    • If you are the person in line ahead of us at the counter or the person working behind the counter who can’t pick up on these signs and allow us to “cut” then I would suggest you have an empathy gap.
  • Nolan is a calm kiddo who LOVES friendship and belonging. Because he is nonverbal and has been socially isolated in various contexts, he doesn’t EVER initiate or invite someone to play a game or read a book.
    • If you are someone who thinks Nolan must not like to be with others and prefers his alone time, then you may be someone with an empathy gap.
    • NOTE: Nolan attends a class that has peers constantly learning more about him, joining him in his activities, and inviting him to join their activities. In the cover photo to this post is a scene of one of his best friends from school walking back to class and helping Nolan get there–a few of the words Nolan DOES know are the names of his friends.

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So… how is it that we build up our capacity for empathy? How do we close our gaps?

One of my dear friends gave me a suggestion the other day for a circumstance that I think would provide an answer using “P’s”:

  • Presume nothing (don’t judge someone’s situation without the next steps),
  • Probe using sensitive questions to understand (“I noticed you doing ____, it was a bit different than what I’m used to, could I ask a few questions?”,
  • Patiently Process by listening carefully (Pause),
  • Paraphrase to verify correct understanding (“So what you are saying is…”),
  • Pass on your best understanding to others when context comes up (I used to think ___, but I have learned ___ from a similar situation which may OR may NOT be the case–don’t presume!)

“Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.”
~1 John 4:11-12 NIV