September 23, 2020

How to Show Empathy Without Saying “Sorry”

Most of us say “I’m sorry” more than we care to admit. In general, we have a tendency to say “sorry” for smaller inconveniences and rudeness, to soften our perceived image, or even to get someone’s attention. And, to show empathy, we all apologize far more than we should, often to the point that people may think less of us for it.

It’s a good idea to stay mindful of what truly deserves an apology and what actually deserves our empathy. When we’re faced with a situation where we want to express connection and closeness, apologetic phrases like “I’m sorry” fall a little flat. But when you find yourself struggling for words to express how you feel, what should you say instead of “sorry?”

“Sorry” to Express Understanding

We often say “sorry” as a way of expressing sympathy, rather than expressing personal fault. It’s an easy shorthand method of stating our understanding—but it’s also uselessly vague, and it leaves us to apologize for the doings of the universe at large. 

Instead of that automatic “I’m sorry,” try to dig deep and express empathy of the emotion the person is feeling. The idea here is to share the fact that you connect with their struggle, and that you know what they’re going through:

  • “You must be so frustrated that you missed that opportunity!”
  • “I know this whole situation has to be so hard on you.”
  • “It sounds really difficult, tackling all of that alone without the help you need.”

If all else fails and you truly don’t understand their situation, make sure to get across the fact that you’re at least trying to process it. Work with statements like “I can’t imagine what you’re going through” or “I’ve never been in your situation, but it must be incredibly difficult.” 

“Sorry” to Share Gratitude and Interest

Sometimes, instead of apologizing, we should be expressing gratitude for the fact that this person has opened up to us at all. Expressing doubts, difficult situations, and internal struggles can be both difficult and intensely personal, so it’s important to make sure the person understands that you appreciate their trying, and that you’re grateful that they trust you enough to open up.

There are a few ways you might acknowledge the challenge and thank them for sharing their feelings:

  • “It means a lot that you trust me with this.”
  • “You know I’m always here to listen, even if I don’t have a solution for you.”
  • “I’m so glad we’re talking about this. I always want to know what’s going on with you.”

Figuring out what to say instead of “I’m sorry” can be a tricky prospect, but it often helps to simply be honest about your feelings, expressing both support and gratitude. Make sure to truly listen, and to tailor your responses to communicate true empathy and feeling in kind.

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