I had a woman employee a few years ago. She wasn’t always available in the office. She told me it was because her children: the boy was sick, the girl had to stay at home, she needed to pick them up because the dad couldn’t on that day, she needed to prepare meals, etc.. At that moment, I didn’t have kids. I was married, though. I told her “I can understand”. But later, when I had my own child, I realized that earlier I didn’t understand her situation at all. People who don’t have child just don’t get the kids thing, no matter how sympathetic you are.
I had a woman manager reporting to me. She wasn’t married and had no child. She had an employee who got pregnant. I was having a chat with the manager about how to support a pregnant employee. She said “I can understand”. I told her “No, you don’t understand”. I knew how hard it is, because my wife had just gone through the pregnancy a year ago (side note: later it turned out that pregnancy is a piece of cake compared to the first six month after the birth). The woman manager was a very nice person. It’s just that there is no way one can understand what it is like being pregnant unless you have been there.
I have been having some lower back problem in the last a couple weeks. It’s painful. It takes a lot effort and time to put on socks and shoes, get into and out of my car and I even hesitate to walk from my office to someone else’s just down the hallway. People in the office see that I am in pain and wish me get better soon. When I dropped the marker pen, they picked it up for me. I really appreciate their kindness and understanding. Now I think I really understand what it is like to have lower back problem and will be truly empathetic in the future when my team member has lower back problem too.
We must have the self-awareness that we don’t really understand a difficulty unless we have been there ourselves. In that case, maybe it’s better to acknowledge our lack of empathy. Rather than saying “I can understand”, we could say “I have never had lower back problem myself, so I couldn’t feel your pain. But I am willing to help. Let me know what I should do/should not do”.