Emotionally Intelligent People Use a Simple 3-Word Phrase to Show Empathy and Build Stronger Relationships

Emotionally Intelligent People Use a Simple 3-Word Phrase to Show Empathy and Build Stronger Relationships

“I need a raise.”

I was in disbelief. As a small business owner, Jenny was my first real hire. And I had spent the last several months figuring out how to bring her on as an employee, so she’d have the extra benefits and security that offers over just working with me as a freelancer. Not to mention how generous I had been with granting paid time off whenever she needed it.

So, when she started our conversation off with those words, I was hurt. “Doesn’t she realize how many hoops I’ve jumped through for her already?”

Instead of jumping into “critical feedback mode,” though, I figured I needed to practice what I preach. After all, emotional intelligence, which is the crux of my entire business, requires keeping an open mind and offering a listening ear. 

As I listened to Jenny, it quickly became obvious: She was under emotional stress. And in many ways, I had been the cause of that stress. The role she was filling now was much different than the role I had hired her for. Without realizing it, I was asking a lot more of her than I was paying her for. 

Hearing her out allowed me to better understand where she was coming from. And although I wasn’t yet sure how exactly we could move forward, our open and honest conversation helped us both achieve emotional balance.

This skill, the ability to show empathy and help others feel heard, is an invaluable skill of emotional intelligence. And I’ve since used a simple, three word framework to help me practice it:

Try to understand.

How can these three simple words help you create a psychologically safe environment, at work and at home? How can it lead to stronger, deeper relationships? Here’s a breakdown. (If you find value in this lesson, you might be interested in my free emotional intelligence course, which teaches you how to build EQ in yourself and your team.)

Try to understand

The “try to understand” framework is valuable because there is always a reason for a person’s behavior. 

The more unusual that behavior is, the more likely it’s a cause related to stress.

For example, a person’s actions are automatically influenced by their:

  • Background
  • Culture
  • Upbringing
  • Habits
  • Way of thinking

But their actions are also influenced by:

  • How much sleep they’ve gotten
  • Their nutrient intake
  • Stressful situations they’re dealing with

So, how do you try to understand?

You have to want to understand.

In order to truly show empathy, you have to be motivated.

Why? Because showing empathy is hard work.

Trying to understand isn’t about excusing bad behavior. It’s about determining the root cause of a problem, so you can help the other person.

Invite the person to share.

Show genuine interest in the other person, and offer them a safe space. 

You might say something like: “I can see you’re not yourself. I’m here if you feel like talking.” Or, simply, “Want to talk about it?”

Practice active listening.

As the person shares, listen carefully. That includes putting away your phone and giving them your full attention.

Active listening doesn’t mean you can’t speak at all. In fact, it can be helpful to draw out the other person by asking them to share more, or simply to mirror the last few words they say if they stop speaking.


Them: “I just couldn’t believe it!”

You: “You couldn’t believe it?”

Them: “Yeah! I couldn’t believe he said it that way, you know? Like, all this time I’ve been…”

Validate the other person’s feelings.

When listening, resist the urge to judge whether what the person is saying is right or wrong. Instead, focus on relating to how they feel. 

Use expressions like:

  • “That must have been upsetting.”
  • “You must have felt misunderstood/frustrated/disappointed.”
  • “Wow. I’m so sorry you’re going through this.”

Expressions like these don’t mean you agree 100% with the other person’s opinion. 

But it does show that you understand their feelings. And that goes a long way to making them feel heard, and creating a safe environment.

So, the next time you see a colleague, family member, or friend who’s acting out of the ordinary, take a pause before you do something to make things worse.

Instead, try to understand.

Because you may not be able to solve every problem. But you can listen. And you can show empathy.

And most of the time, that’s more than enough.

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