How Empathy Can Resolve and Prevent Conflict

My four-year-old niece stamped her feet and whaled in agony when my brother told her she was too ill to go to the fun fair that evening. She ran over to me and climbed onto my lap, red faced and spluttering between breaths that it wasn’t fair and I had to tell her father to “stop being horrible.” I stroked her hair away from her wet face and explained to her that it was cold and her tonsillitis would get worse but I soon realised that my reaction wasn’t helping as she carried on talking about the injustice of it all.  There was no point in explaining intellectually to a child about viruses and how they heal by resting. My niece, in her own innocent view of the world, was feeling the sad disappointment that we all feel when a promise is broken, no matter what the good intention behind that was.

As adults, we learn that life brings disappointments in many forms and it doesn’t matter how trivial it appears, the experience of suffering can be intense and sometimes devastating.

Empathy

When we use empathy in our daily interactions, we become able to listen deeply to each other, expressing how we feel, what our prejudices and deep-rooted perceptions are without judging them. We can still be present with them by making space for the expression of their suffering without attempting to change it or shut it down in some way, perhaps by offering explanations or advice. I’m not saying that my niece should have communicated herself better but instead that I should have stopped trying to make it all go away and just listen.

There are several definitions of empathy from a psychological and philosophical perspective, but ultimately, it consists of a “respectful understanding of what another is experiencing.”[1] Empathy and compassion are similar in that they both require an awareness of another person’s suffering and an acceptance of this subjective experience. Compassion is, however, about staying with a person in those difficult moments but not absorbing the same emotions that they might be feeling and actively trying to alleviate their suffering. As the Dalai Lama taught, what helps to cultivate compassion is accepting that we all suffer, even those that have committed the most heinous crimes. Both are important human responses to some of the few concrete conditions of life and suffering is one of them.

Compassionate listening described by Thich Naht Hahn

Finding Common Ground

Knowing that suffering is universal helps us to find common ground and in conflict, this can avoid stalemate. Being able to sit and just listen to every aspect of how a person is communicating their discomfort can help you to understand their perspective, their needs and interests and their perceptions and prejudices which are key elements of conflict.

You may have already noticed your own responses to conflict. I remember a man shouting angrily at me because I was complaining quite forcefully about the immensely slow speed of his internet café’s connection.

I’d already begun to formulate my own perceptions of his response; he was rude, he was a male chauvinist and worst of all, he was an idiot! My mind had automatically distanced him from me on a very human level. I realised how ridiculous my reaction had been when he told me that he really didn’t need this right now because his father had only recently passed away.

This flash of vulnerability made me connect with his loss and empathise with his sadness and anger. I apologised after a long pause, offered my condolences and he suggested that I try a different computer with a better connection. That’s the power of empathy and compassion. It allows us to bridge the gaps in our differences, especially those which we create in our minds that allow conflict to continue.

Top Tips To Resolve and Prevent Conflict

Empathy isn’t something that you can learn in a corporate course or a two-day self-development event. It’s not something you can read about in an article or watch a Ted Talk and become an expert. It takes patience and dedication to change how you see other people and their experience of life. This is often testing, especially when what they say differs fundamentally from how we view the World or the things that they have done have profoundly wounded us in some way. Essentially, it takes self-accountability and awareness and whilst I can’t promise that you’ll get it right in every conflict, I can give you some tips on how you can use empathy and compassion to resolve and prevent conflict.

How to Put Empathy Into Practice  

  1. Become Self-Aware. When you feel that conflict is about to erupt, what is your first thought? Do you instantly start blaming the other person because of their innate qualities? Do you express prejudice such as, “what do you expect from a …” What is your conflict style? Acknowledging this in yourself and to accept that this is normal, will help you to accept it in others.
  2. Work On Seeing the Similarities Between Yourself and the Other Person. Can you identify with their needs and interests? Is it possible to understand that they may have experienced something difficult or uncomfortable or are you able to see some of their emotions in yourself? By doing this, you bring the person closer to you instead of creating further barriers that stop you from constructively resolving or from preventing conflict. We all know what it is like to feel isolated, excluded, disappointed and angry and we all have very similar needs and interests.
  3. Learn to Listen. Let the other person speak about their point of view. Acknowledge their difficulties. Confirm that you have heard their emotions and encourage them to trust you enough to be vulnerable. Things to avoid doing are giving advice, justifying yourself, explaining, shutting down what they are saying because you find it uncomfortable or diverting the conversation to your own experience.

It may look easy but real empathy takes time and practice and a constant eye on your own reactions and responses. Using it in a conflict context to communicate can encourage participants to deconstruct the perceptions that condition our responses and to build bridges between us for better understanding.

Let me know what you think!


[1] Marshall B. Rosenburg, Non-Violent Communication (3rd edn., Puddle Dancer Press, 2015)

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