Empathy and Communication: Do We Have to Have ‘Been There’?

It seems that our experience is common or shared. Our understanding is based on our experience; but our experience is shared, and so our understanding can be too.

For a couple of years I was a teacher of ‘psychological skills’ in a remand centre. This was largely enjoyable for me, at least the time in class with the students was (the administration was a hassle). Some of the students were quite motivated, and during each lesson there was a moment or two of genuine communication; considering the context, this was a pretty good result.

It was obvious from the first moments of any class that there was a fairly large cultural gap between me and most of the students. I grew up pretty straight and had never been into drugs. (In Australia, much crime is drug related. When I started there I wasn’t in favour of legalising drugs; now I am.) This usually wasn’t a problem, but in one class about getting off drugs one student voiced the view that because I hadn’t been a drug addict I couldn’t know what it was like. The implication was that there was no point listening to what I had to say.

This view I think of as, “You had to be there (or you can’t understand)”. There is a sense in which this is certainly true: our understanding is based on our experience. In Australia we have a bird called a Sulphur-crested Cockatoo. It has quite a distinctive call, which I would describe as a raucous screech. But saying this doesn’t really give you a good idea of what it is like. I could go on and give a more detailed description (imagine a noisy, rusty hinge), and you still wouldn’t know exactly what this bird sounds like. Even if I was a gifted poet I may not be able to convey this to you. Once you have heard this bird, however, I just need to name it and you will probably be able to remember the call easily (it is quite distinctive). If you have been there when a Sulphur-crested Cockatoo has been cawing — especially if there was a flock of them — then you will know what it is like; if you haven’t, then it is difficult to convey the experience. (If you are interested there are bird lover sites that have mp3s of the different bird calls.)

If this is true of something as simple as a bird call, then wouldn’t this be much truer of our emotional lives? The answer seems to be an obvious yes. But I’m not sure that is the whole story.

I’m not sure that is the whole story firstly because I have had the sense on occasion that people do deeply understand my experience. They have told me what they think the experience was like for me, and this has been right — and I have felt deeply touched.

Secondly, other people have assured me that I have understood what they have been saying about their experience. When I have given my understanding of what they went through, they have assured that that was what it was like for them.

The “You had to be there (or you can’t understand)” view doesn’t seem to be able to accommodate these experiences of communication. Taken as a principle it would seem to exclude empathy entirely.

It seems that our experience is common or shared. Our understanding is based on our experience; but our experience is shared, and so our understanding can be too. I think we can ignore this because it is so common. Our attention is captured by what is unusual — and the usual fades into the background. Imagine getting up and commuting to a job. We have thousands of moments of successful communication: getting up and dressed, breakfast and commuting, all those road rules obeyed, many social greetings exchanged and room made for strangers…all this before starting work for the day! This isn’t remarkable so we ignore it; one outrageously rude remark we remember (perhaps for a very long time).

I think the “You had to be there (or you can’t understand)” view is so widespread because it makes sense of the unusual times — the times when we can’t convey what we want to. These can be times of great frustration or even sadness; they are memorable, but often they are unusual too.

Having said that, I want to honour the truth in the “You had to be there” view. Our understanding is from our experience. I think there is an important implication of this: to understand another person means getting a sense of their experience. This can take time.

To get a sense of the other’s experience can take a lot of listening — and it can always be surprising. The petty details which I can’t be bothered with others don’t find frustrating at all. It is incomprehensible to some that I love those big ideas that are so abstract. Even good friends that I have known for years can still surprise me with their responses and preferences. (For example, how can someone into classical music and with a PhD in philosophy like reality TV? It will take a great deal of listening before I understand this.)

For most things, I don’t think we ‘had to be there’ to understand. And I think that if we put in the time then we will at least have a pretty good idea of the other person’s experience. For the uniqueness that is left, perhaps this can be treasured — and in the treasuring perhaps we can draw closer to each other.

I would like to hear what you think. Do you find it impossible to convey some experiences to some people — or even to anyone? Have you had times when you have been surprised that someone seemed to ‘get it’? I’d love to hear your experience in the comments.

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