If there were only one skill that we could develop 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 try to understand what another person is experiencing. Empathy allows us to stand together with the other person, at the level where we’re all fellow human beings who go through rough times and good times.
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, with shared life experience. It is easier to care about them.
Empathy is different than pity or feeling sorry for the other person. There is a subtle superiority with pity, which makes us seem to be standing above and magnanimously dispensing pity from our more perfect life.
Responding with empathy and caring diffuses 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 for them to yell to get our attention. Empathy also short-circuits the adrenaline cycle in our own bodies that prevents us from responding well. We have a better chance of saying and doing things we’ll be proud of later. It’s not always easy, though. Empathizing is great when we’re sharing in someone else’s joy. Sharing in the less pleasant emotions is tougher because we have our own reactions to the situation.
How can we respond more empathetically to others during difficult times?
Basically, we need to shift our focus beyond only ourselves. We have to slow down, breathe, and really pay attention to the signals the other person is sending about how they are feeling. It helps to be curious about what’s going on with them. Are they feeling angry? Sad? Disrespected? It’s also okay to ask how they’re doing, as long as we listen to their reply.
We can communicate our respect for what they’re experiencing either verbally (e.g. “That sounds really difficult.”) or non-verbally, with a smile or even a hug. It’s important to be sincere in any responses, since we all have pretty sensitive phony-o-meters and insincerity will only make things worse. It’s also crucial to avoid thinking and saying that we know exactly how they feel. We can guess at another’s feelings, but can’t really know without being told.
For example, if a co-worker is uncharacteristically critical of us after a meeting, we have a choice. We can immediately get caught-up in defending ourselves and conflict escalates. Or we can first take a deep breath and calm ourselves and then focus on our colleague by saying something like: “You seem really upset at what happened in that meeting.” Then we listen as they share their experience. Perhaps the problem had nothing to do with us. It may turn out they’re upset at something our boss said and they’re just taking it out on us. Once we listen to them, they will likely calm down, recognize the real problem, and apologize. Maybe then together we can strategize about how to deal with what our boss said.
We are a social species. In spite of our national self-image as a bunch of ruggedly independent individuals, we have to work together to function and thrive. Not only does empathy make it easier to work together, helping someone with whom we empathize makes us feel better, too. When we allow ourselves to feel what others are going through, it lessens the distance between us and helps us get along.