I listened to a pre-marital counselling conference and the speaker said, “if married couples really understood the concept of empathy, they would be able to resolve marital conflict.” A colleague of mine said her husband and her hardly argue because they can understand how each other would feel, so they do not say something that is going to hurt each other. Statements like these are inspiring to read as people “put themselves in another person’s shoes” and display empathy effectively to resolve or prevent conflict. “Conflict is likely to be experienced whenever ideas, activities, structures and people change in relation to each other. Since change is not only inevitable but also often desirable, conflict is unavoidable as well” (Francis, 2004, p. 4). Conflict occurs daily in our world and as a Human Resources professional, I have had to handle conflict more frequently by using conflict resolution and mediation strategies. One of the key strategies for me, is empathy.
For example, in a conflict resolution meeting, I often ask the employee “do you understand why your manager was angry at you” and then ask the manager, “do you understand why your employee reacted that way”.
Often, we do not usually think about how the other person felt when we feel like we have been wronged, at that point, we think about ourselves and our emotions, not the other person. I have learnt an important tool recently, that if you turn the number 9, horizontally and you look at it from the right it will still be a number 9 but if you look at it from the left, it is a number 6. All you must do is change position, by using empathy we are walking over to the other side of where the other person is viewing the number. This in turn is empathy and how conflict can be solved through this skill set.
Empathy in my opinion has been around from the beginning of time, psychologists and other researchers coined the term in the early 1900s and it has been researched for over a century. Research varies from the conceptualization of empathy and can even be further categorized into different types of empathy, the advantages and disadvantages of empathy, how empathy can help you in your career and in the counselling profession. It is beneficial to read through some of these articles and I will leave the links below for your perusal, however the purpose of this article is empathy in resolving conflict. So how can empathy resolve conflict? We have looked at the definition of empathy, how conflict is a daily occurrence and can help significantly if used correctly to resolve conflict. We have also looked at the history and research of empathy but let us take a closer look into how we can practically use empathy to resolve conflict and how can we develop our emphatic skills.
How can we practically use empathy to resolve conflict?
- As a mediator, you should first try to understand the conflict, I usually ask the following questions
- when did it start,
- how and where did it occur,
- has it happened before, if so, how was it resolved before,
- what are the storylines of the two people in conflict, ask each of them to explain their view of the conflict and how they looked at the events.
This is called conflict mapping as you see the picture of the conflict emerge. Empathy is central at this level because most people have deferring views of how they perceived the conflict occurred and as the mediator, you would be able to see the threads of commonality in their story-lines and they will be able to see how each perceived the conflict, already being able to identify and grapple with how the other viewed the conflict.
- Use empathy to get them to understand how each other felt and what solutions they would like to take to resolve the conflict, also ask them if they want to resolve the conflict, ask questions like what do you think went wrong along the way and how could it have this been avoided? In these answers, lies resolution, if you can find common ground, use these to develop an action plan as a way forward.
An example is when both suggest, they could have communicated more clearly to each other instead of assuming, and the action plan if in business could be that they may need to have a formal meeting before making decisions to ensure clarity from both parties.
- Having a neutral party to be the mediator, is central in resolving conflict so if people disagree at any point, the mediator can strategically facilitate the discussion to minimize more conflict. If it is marital conflict and you do not want to use a mediator, I would advise that you seek out a marriage mentor or someone you can hold yourself accountability to, to practice being empathic in conflict, to develop this skill for future conflict that may occur.
- Embrace empathy in conflict resolution through active listening, often in times of conflict, we do not take the time to listen to what the person is saying because we are so quick to retaliate with the next response. In conflict resolution, listening is key to understanding the other person’s perspective. It is important that while listening to the other person’s perspective that you do not interrupt them but rather let them finish their side of the story completely before commenting.
- Challenge social bias, mindsets, preconceived ideas such as stereotypes or prejudices you may have with the person in conflict.
For example, get to understand the person’s cultural view to understand how they may behave. For example, asking too many questions in a certain culture could be viewed as inquisitive or disrespectful however in another culture it may be viewed as a norm as a sign of caring or concern.
It is important to understand this, so you do not place expectations on people to “know” everything about their surroundings just because you assume it is the norm.
How can we develop empathy in daily life?
- Use self-reflection, after an argument or if something has triggered high-intensity emotions within you, perhaps take some time to reflect on those emotions and ask yourself why you felt a certain way. For example, why did you feel remorse when someone explained that 3 children were kidnapped, it may be that you are a parent and understand how much you love your own children, so you feel sorrow and can empathize with someone else whose children may be taken away from them. You could also ask yourself the same question, when you lack empathy in a certain situation.
For example, I was at my doctor’s office a few weeks ago and one of the assistants at the doctor’s office told a patient that an “aunty” from down the road passed away. My parents were with me at the time and displayed such emphatic emotions with all the remorse in the world even though they did not meet this “aunty”. I, in my flu-like state, was rather shocked by their empathy, especially because I did not display such strong emphatic responses. Later that evening, my mother came to me and said “isn’t it so sad what happened to that aunty, if only I could do something or knew the family, I would make them a meal and give it to them” , so of course I asked her why she felt so strongly towards this lady as we did not know her and why did the entire doctor’s room start discussing this lady that passed away, I walked out of that doctor’s office, knowing so much about the aunty that passed away that it felt like she was my aunty. My parents did not cease to investigate, they asked numerous questions, like where the lady stayed, and does she have family and the other patients also shared in this loss. My family and I are Indian, and the community of the doctor’s offices are situated in an Indian community. My mother explained that in the good olden days, Indian communities would gather together and prepare meals for the household who lost a family member, each neighbour would prepare something and help that family. This was a sign of caring and in all truth, that aunty that lives down the road, would be like family as you would know her household etc. It was difficult for me to display empathy to this situation, but for my parents it became easy because they identified with the situation and that aunty down the road, it may have felt like one of their own aunties growing up and they were able to display those same emotions once again.
I began to reflect on why I did not display empathy to that situation and I have begun a process of discovery to develop empathy in a greater way. Self-reflection can be done through journaling, chatting to a friend or meditation practices.
- Teaching empathy to others. For you to raise awareness of empathy and teach this practice to others you would also need to grow in empathy. A lot of research has gone into empathy in education, where children are learning empathy and resolving conflict and bullying on the playground.
- Understand your social bias and preconceived ideas by challenging yourself to get to know other cultures and find commonalities with them. Challenge yourself by meeting different social groups and classes of people. For example, high income classes of people, different cultural or religious groups.
- Be vulnerable with others as you begin to understand your emotions, share your life with the people around you to share in the joys, struggles and dreams of others.
- Think beyond yourself and your world. Step out into the real world and out of your comfort zone, have a look at the street beggar, have a look at human trafficking, it is all happening outside our doors. For me, I have discovered that I feel more empathy towards children who beg rather than adults, but this is something I need to reflect on, what is it for you? What breaks your heart when you step out your door? If it breaks your heart, maybe it is time to use that emotion to elicit change.
I will leave you this quote which speaks for itself as there is a call on my heart to be more emphatic and through this way of being emphatic, there is a call to action. I hope this post left you feeling inspired to use empathy to resolve conflict effectively and to use to it bring about change in daily life.
“Empathy is more than just awareness and concern. It is about cultural sensitivity and conflict resolution. It’s about the ability to communicate effectively and understand the motivations of others. Empathy is about standing up, not standing by, uncovering what’s below the surface through active listening and putting words into action” (Ashoka Changemakers).