Resolving Conflict Through Empathy

“Never judge a person until you have walked a mile in their moccasins.”

 Native American proverb.

How much better would we be if we took the time to look at the world through the eyes of another?  How many arguments and conflicts would we have avoided in our lives if we just looked at life through another’s view point? Empathy is a great tool that can allow us to look at life through another’s perspective to move us past conflict with others.

Empathy is the ability to put yourself in another’s situation and share his/hers thoughts and feelings. Empathy is also looking at things from the other’s point of view rather then yours.  When we use empathy, we can begin to turn any conflict situation into a problem solving opportunity. Empathy promotes understanding and allows us to move beyond our positions and begin to explore the others’ interests and needs.  It promotes acknowledgement, respect, and legitimacy of other’s concerns, thus letting the other party know that they are heard.

Having empathy alone will not go far to move a conflict to resolution. One has to publicly show empathy to the other in order for it to change our outcomes. Showing empathy means telling others you understand their feelings and perspective. One way for showing empathy is sharing similar experiences with the other party as a way of relating to their concerns. This will let them know that you can relate to them and their situation. If you have no similar experiences, try to understand their situations and express your feelings for them.  Remember that in showing empathy you must mean what you say. When you express empathy that you do not really feel, you may offend people and do more harm then good. Let’s look at an example:

 Mr. Johnson is upset with Robert’s young children. Robert is Mr. Johnson’s neighbor and his children come into Mr. Johnson’s yard and trample though his garden beds. Mr. Johnson confronts Robert about the problem.

Robert responds to Mr. Johnson by saying, “I understand your frustrated Mr. Johnson. You have put many hours in your garden, and I know it means a lot to you. I will talk to my children and make sure that they respect your property.”

Robert’s showing of empathy allows Mr. Johnson to know that Robert understood his concern about his garden. Robert acknowledged Mr. Johnson’s feelings, and his invested time and value that he placed on his garden. Such showing of empathy brought out Mr. Johnson’s interests and now makes it easier to discuss a solution to the problem. In this example empathy created common ground for both parties to worth from. Robert and Mr. Johnson both understand and acknowledged how frustrating and important the situation is and can now work to solve the problem.

Empathy does not mean that you have to agree or give in to the other side’s demands or perspective. This idea is a myth and generally keeps others from expressing it. One can empathize with another and still disagree with the other parties’ solutions, and perspective. Let’s look at the example above again:

Robert understands that Mr. Johnson is upset about his garden being trampled by his children, but Robert knows that because the garden is located next to the side walk that his children are not the only children that are walking through the garden.  In fact he has stopped other children from walking through Mr. Johnson’s garden before. Robert says to Mr. Johnson, “I understand that you are frustrated about your garden.  I would be too with all the time and money you have put into it. I am sure my children need to be more careful around it, and I will talk to them. However, I also have noticed that other children are also walking through your garden.  Have you noticed that as well?”

In this example Robert shows empathy, and yet does not agree with Mr. Johnson’s perspective that his children are solely responsible for the incident.  Robert was able to show empathy and create a space to resolve the conflict while still holding to his perspective.

Empathy is a tool that can be used to create starting point to resolve conflict.  It is not a declaration of defeat or admission of guilt. Rather it can help bring down the other parties defenses by showing the other party that you are willing to listen and resolve.  Empathy can help bring parties together by creating a little common ground to build from. It allows the parties to acknowledge each others’ humanity and legitimacy.  Once this is established in a conflict, resolution can then be pursued.  If we learn to use empathy in our relationships and conflict, we will find ourselves building stronger and lasting resolutions and associations.

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