15 phrases to communicate empathy without saying “sorry”

We’ve all been there. The awkward moment when someone opens up about their struggle, heartache, and pain.

Your mind races, trying to string together the right words to say. The silence hangs heavy. And there you go again – you default to the clichéd “I’m sorry” even though you know it’s inadequate.

Most of us are guilty of using “sorry” as our comfort zone, our knee-jerk reaction to discomfort.

We say it without even realizing, diluting its impact and sometimes even implying guilt where there’s none. Let’s break the pattern.

1) “I Hear You.”

The sentence “I hear you” is often underused and undervalued. It’s an affirmation that you acknowledge their reality without judgment, without overshadowing it with your personal bias.

You’re reassuring the other person that this is a safe place.

I recommend that you also try to grasp the emotions, fears, and aspirations behind their words.

When you respond with “I hear you,” follow through with a brief summary of what you’ve understood.

“I hear you – it must be really tough managing all these tasks simultaneously” or “I hear you – you feel like I’ve not been spending enough time with you. Let’s work on this together.”

2) “I Appreciate Your Openness in Sharing This With Me.”

Remember: People don’t open up easily, especially about matters close to their hearts.

It takes a lot of courage to lay bare your innermost thoughts, fears, and insecurities to someone else.

If anything, I take it as a compliment when someone feels safe to be vulnerable around me because that means they trust me.

They think I’m capable of handling their truths, no matter how bizarre or sanitized.

When you say the sentence “I appreciate your openness in sharing this with me,” you’re also encouraging the other person to continue sharing, creating a feedback loop of trust and honesty.

When trust is established, walls come down and that’ll be the start of a stronger bond between the two of you.

3) “This Isn’t Easy, and I See You’re Doing Your Best.”

Struggles are extremely personal. What seems trivial to one person can be a significant hurdle for another.

So when you tell someone “This isn’t easy, and I see you’re doing your best,” you’re basically saying that you see their struggle. You’re there with them, recognizing their fight.

I recall a time when my friend Hannah was going through a rough patch. Her marriage was falling apart, she got diagnosed with depression, she was juggling two jobs, and her mother had been diagnosed with cancer.

One day, I told her this exact phrase which gave her a moment of relief. She realized that she wasn’t alone. She didn’t have to hide her struggle.

4) “It Seems Like You’re Carrying a Heavy Load. Let’s Share the Weight.”

This is a phrase that carries empathy, understanding, solidarity, and encouragement all in one.

It doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll take over their burdens or solve their problems for them.

Rather, you’re communicating that you’re offering a helping hand, an understanding ear, or a comforting presence.

That said, it’s important to be attuned to non-verbal cues that someone might be struggling deep down inside.

These include changes in behavior, shifts in mood, or alterations in daily routines. Someone’s laughter might seem forced or their silence holds more weight than usual.

5) “How Can I Best Support You Right Now?”

This is one of my go-to questions whenever a friend is going through dark times. It’s a genuine inquiry into their needs at a particular moment.

It indicates a willingness to help and support, but it also acknowledges that they are the best judge of what they need. It puts the person you’re speaking to in control.

Pro tip: Always ask first whether the person you’re speaking to wants solutions or just needs someone to listen.

A lot of us make the mistake to offer unsolicited advice when what the person really needs is to be heard.

Trust me – being heard is often more healing than any solution could be.

6) “I Can’t Fully Understand Your Experience, but I Want to Try. Can You Tell Me More About It?”

While it’s impossible to completely grasp what another person is going through unless you’ve been in their shoes, the attempt to understand is a powerful gesture of empathy and respect.

It shows that you’re not there to impose your perspectives but, rather, to understand their point of view. You want to listen with an open mind and an open heart.

For instance, if a friend talks about their experience with discrimination – something I don’t deal with on a day-to-day basis – I typically say “I can’t fully understand your experience, but I want to try.

Can you tell me more about it?”

By doing so, I acknowledge the limitations of my understanding while expressing a sincere desire to learn more.

It’s a confession of my lack of firsthand experience and a commitment to learning from theirs.

7) “You’ve Been Really Strong in Dealing With This.”

We all face hardships in life, but it’s how we deal with these hardships that often define our character.

When you tell someone “You’ve been really strong in dealing with this,” you’re reinforcing their self-belief and boosting their morale. You’re giving them the motivation to keep going.

This phrase beautifully encapsulates a nuanced way to express empathy. Instead of focusing on the negative, you’re placing a spotlight on the emotional fortitude they’ve shown.

You’re not saying, “I’m sorry this is happening to you,” which can sometimes come off as insincere or empty.

8) “It’s Understandable to Have These Reactions in Such Circumstances.”

When you tell someone that you understand why they’re reacting a certain way, you’re reassuring them that their feelings are normal and valid.

And when someone feels seen and validated, they’ll be able to process the situation more effectively.

Validation helps to dismantle self-doubt and guilt associated with our emotions.

When our feelings are validated, we stop questioning their legitimacy and start focusing on how to handle them.

9) “I Recognize That I’ve Made a Mistake, and I Understand How It’s Affected You.”

Let’s flip the script. When you’re the one in the wrong, there are statements that you could say to prove that you’ve put your pride down.

For example, “I recognize that I’ve made a mistake, and I understand how it’s affected you” is a phrase that conveys personal responsibility.

It communicates that you not only acknowledge your mistake but also understand the impact it has had on the other person.

This might look like, “I apologize for forgetting our appointment, and I understand how it’s affected you,” if you’ve missed a meeting with a friend.

Or in a professional setting, you could say, “I acknowledge that I’ve made a mistake in mismanaging the project, and I understand how it’s affected the team.”

10) “I Take Full Responsibility for My Actions and the Pain They Caused You.”

Taking responsibility is often a precursor to apology and reparations.

When you say this sentence, you’re sending a clear message: You messed up, and you want to repair the damage you’ve done (which is, hopefully, still possible).

You’re willing to face the situation head-on, no ifs or buts about it.

A few years back, I screwed up big time with a close friend.

Long story short, I made a reckless decision that ended up hurting them. I won’t dive into the details, but let’s just say it wasn’t my finest hour.

No amount of explaining could erase the fact that I’d cause them a tremendous amount of pain.

So I decided to tell them, “I take full responsibility for my actions and the pain they caused you.” It wasn’t easy. But I always knew it was necessary.

They didn’t forgive me instantly (I didn’t expect them to), but I knew that was the first step towards mending our friendship.

11) “I Should’ve Been More Considerate.”

You need to show an understanding of your own shortcomings and a willingness to express regret.

When you say this phrase, you’re admitting that you overlooked the feelings, needs, or circumstances of another, causing them unnecessary discomfort or distress.

While it’s best that you learn from your mistakes, it’s commendable that you’re self-aware and can accept the consequences of your own actions.

12) “I Sincerely Want to Make Things Right. Is There Anything Else You Want Me to Address?”

What I like about this statement is that its strength lies in its humility. It’s the complete opposite of a defensive attitude.

It opens up a dialogue that can lead to deeper understanding, healing, and connection.

 

You’re not copping out of the problem because you’re seeking to understand the other person’s feelings and expectations.

You’re asking them to guide you in this process of making amends.

13) “It’s Okay to Feel What You’re Feeling.”

It’s strange how comforting this phrase can be.

In a world where emotions are often sidelined or belittled, telling someone their feelings are valid can be immensely powerful.

In fact, this phrase is more than emotional validation – it’s an acknowledgement of the other’s personal experience.

Whenever I vent about my problems to my friend Mara, she always comforts me with the words “Hey, it’s okay to feel what you’re feeling. You don’t need to hide it, not with me.”

And sometimes, that’s all we need – someone to remind us that it’s okay to go through the rollercoaster ride of emotions.

14) “I See the Pain You’re In. I’m Here for You.”

During intense moments, it’s easy to feel alone and misunderstood. That’s why expressing your presence can mean so much to someone.

While you’re not particularly offering solutions or advice, you’re communicating to them that you’re not just listening.

You’re really seeing them – their struggles, pain, and emotional reality.

You’re also promising your support in whatever form that may take.

15) “I Can See Why You Would Feel That Way.”

When you say this phrase, you’re not just brushing off the other person’s feelings; you’re recognizing their right to have those feelings.

It’s like saying, “I may not have been in your shoes, but I can understand how wearing them might feel.”

You’re acknowledging that if you were in their exact situation, with their experiences and perceptions, you too might feel the same way.

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Lachlan Brown

Lachlan Brown

I’m Lachlan Brown, the editor of Ideapod and founder of Hack Spirit. I love writing practical articles that help others live a mindful and better life. I have a graduate degree in Psychology and I’ve spent the last 6 years reading and studying all I can about human psychology and practical ways to hack our mindsets. If you to want to get in touch with me, hit me up on Twitter or Facebook.

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