Today, I’d like to touch a bit on empathy, the importance of conflict, and the utilization of empathy when involved in conflict. Conflict brings truth, creativity, and resolution to many situations, yet so many of us shy away from conflict. Why is that? You see, it’s never the person across from us that scares us, it is conflict itself. Participating in conflict is naturally uncomfortable. Part of the problem here lies in our culture’s tendency to gravitate towards pain avoidance. We avoid discomfort and suffering in all its forms; physical, mental, emotional. But by numbing ourselves to pain, we can also numb ourselves to the pleasures of life, the exhilaration of everyday existence. When we participate in pain avoidance, we are inherently looking out for our best interests. WE do not want to feel uncomfortable, so WE consciously seek to avoid that feeling. By doing this, many of us lack a key characteristic that is crucial to any relationship: empathy. Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another individual. However, if we are only focused on how WE feel, empathy is quite literally impossible. This lack of empathy typically leads to escalations of conflict, and feelings of isolation, bitterness, anxiety and high stress!
While some of us shy away from conflict, others may greet it with open arms. However, without empathy from both parties, conflict never truly gets resolved. Let me give you an example. I used to (and still do) get into arguments with many people with whom I have a strong emotional connection with. As my example will go on to show you, conflict in and of itself is healthy, but conflict without empathy can be disastrous! In many of the conflicts I have engaged in, I truly, truly, truly believed it was something my counterpart was doing that sparked the argument and unnecessarily injected anxiety & stress into both of our lives. I rarely paused to try and empathize with where the person standing across from me was coming from. This subsequently lead to the destruction of many relationships I held close to my heart. It’s not that I consciously decided not to empathize with these individuals, it’s that I was simply oblivious to this entire concept. I thought to myself “Man, this person is crazy” or “Man, this person is so irrational. They just don’t get it. Won’t they just hear me out?” It is not until I came across the meaning of empathy in a book, started performing relentless amounts of research on the topic, and practicing in it in my everyday life that I realized the debilitating & destructive characteristic of self-centeredness that I possessed was the lead cause for not only failed business deals, but also failed relationships. Fact of the matter is that as much as we would like to believe we are caring, empathetic, perfect, flawless & NEVER wrong, we are in fact imperfect, flawed, and wrong, most of the time. And until we are able to swallow this awkwardly misshaped, gigantic truth pill, we will continue to struggle not only while in the midst of conflict, but also with developing meaningful long-term relationships.
If we can learn to empathize with others in our day-to-day lives, we will not only better equip ourselves with the tools needed for conflict resolution, but the quality of our relationships, both professionally and personally, will increase dramatically! Below are 5 techniques one may implement to trigger feelings of empathy in one’s life:
- Take a deep breath, relax, & listen: The harder we push, the more likely we are to be met with resistance. Rather than pushing your opinion or your side of the story on somebody else, actually listen and understand where your counterpart is coming from. Like, really LISTEN! Developing this skill is the first step on the road to empathy. Once we can “ place ourselves in somebody else’s shoes,” we will better be able to understand where that person is coming from. As the saying goes, God gave us 2 ears and 1 mouth for a reason.
- Focus on the here and now: Ask yourself: why is this person communicating what they are communicating to me right now? Focusing so much on the end objective (i.e. I want to go to dinner at this restaurant, or I want them to understand where I am coming from) will only distract you from the next step, and this can cause you both to fall off the path. Be present, and concentrate on what is going on here and now.
- Embrace conflict: In Never Split the Difference by Chris Voss (world-renowned FBI Hostage Negotiator), he explains the United States’ stance on negotiating with terrorists as follows: we do not negotiate with terrorists. He goes on to explain why he disagrees with this stance, informing the reader that we MUST communicate with our counterpart if there is to ever be any sort of conflict resolution. Chris has a point. Many of us would rather bury conflict deep down and never address the underlying issue in fear of conflict, in and of itself. This will not only ensure that conflict persists, but it will also leave one with quite a bit of emotional baggage that could take weeks, months, even years to dig back up and release.
- Approach everything with a beginner’s mind: Assume a beginner’s mindset in order to put aside our unconscious biases, as these biases restrict the amount of real empathy we can build. What this means is that, as human beings, we should always do our best to leave our own assumptions and experiences behind when empathizing. Our life experiences create assumptions within us, which we use to explain and make sense of the world around us. However, this very process affects our ability to empathize in an organic way with others. Since completely letting go of our assumptions is impossible, we should constantly and consciously remind ourselves to assume a beginner’s mindset. Question everything—even if you think you know the answer—and truly listen to what others are saying!
- Inform yourself of the situation at hand: Earlier, I mentioned we are flawed and imperfect individuals, and I meant it. As much we like to categorize our actions and thoughts as right and complete, they are not. When we enter into conflict with others, we oftentimes feel our counterpart is irrational, crazy, or just doesn’t get it, but this couldn’t be further from the truth. It is not until we educate ourselves on our counterpart’s point of view and truly understand the events or circumstances that contribute to their opinion or stance on the conflict at hand that we finally have a clearer sense of where that individual is coming from. It is from here where we can truly develop feelings of empathy and work towards resolution.
In Never Split the Difference, Chris Voss says it best: “One can only be an exceptional negotiator and a great person by both listening and speaking clearly and empathetically; by treating counterparts, as well as oneself, with dignity and respect; and most of all by being honest about what one wants, and what one can and cannot do. Every negotiation every conversation, every moment of life, is a series of small conflicts that, managed well, can rise to creative beauty. EMBRACE THEM!”