If there were only one skill that we could develop more fully in order to reduce conflict, it would be the ability to empathize. When we empathize with another, we use verbal and non-verbal cues to learn and understand what another person is experiencing. We have a chance to “walk in their shoes”.
Once we get a sense of what the other person may be feeling, it gives us a greater ability to relate to them positively. We begin to see them as more like us – we have a sense of the comradery of shared experience. It is easier to care about them and develop a desire to help them.
Responding with empathy and caring ‘soothes the savage beasts’ in everyone, diffusing the fear, isolation, and defensiveness that can lead to conflict. One of the best ways to de-escalate a conflict is to listen to and empathize with the other person. When they feel heard, there’s less reason to yell or fight for our attention. Empathy also short-circuits the adrenaline cycle that prevents us from responding as our best selves. We have a better chance of saying and doing things we’ll be proud of later.
Empathy allows us to stand together with the other, at the same level, the level at which we’re all fellow human beings who go through rough times. This is different than pity, which usually involves feeling sorry for the other person. There is a subtle superiority involved in pity, which can appear as someone standing above and magnanimously dispensing pity from their more perfect life.
How can we respond more empathetically to others?
Basically, we need to shift our focus beyond just ourselves. We have to slow down and really pay attention to the signals the other person is communicating about how they are feeling. Become curious about what’s going on with them – are they feeling angry? Sad? Disrespected? Be as fully present with them as possible. It’s okay to ask them how they’re doing. And then listen to their reply. We can let them know that we see their pain, that we respect what they’re experiencing right now. Avoid thinking and saying that we know how they feel – we can guess, but we can’t ever know. Being sincere is crucial. We all have pretty sensitive fake-o-meters for phony sentiment, so it’s important to be authentic in any responses.
For example, if a co-worker is uncharacteristically critical after a difficult meeting, rather than immediately getting caught-up in defending yourself, you could focus on your colleague by saying, “You seem really upset at what happened in that meeting.” Then listen as they share their experience. It’s amazing how often listening with curiosity can calm both their and our own response down.
We are a social species. Empathy functions as an important part of the social glue that holds us together as a society. In spite of our national self-image as independent individuals, we have to work together to function. Not only does empathy make it easier to work together, helping someone with whom we empathize can make us feel better.
Empathy and compassion are among the highest of human qualities. When we really feel what others are going through, it allows us to relate to others and lessens the distance between us.