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6 Keys for Handling Conflict Part 3: Empathy is like a Superpower!

In 2021 the world received the horrific revelation that hundreds of children were found buried at several residential schools within Canada. Any person with a heart that has not been completely hardened by life will have felt gripped with sympathy for all those directly affected. Yet, I suspect the closer you are to the situation, those feelings run deeper than sympathy. When you have a close relationship with people directly affected by tragedy, your heart feels what they are feeling. This is how to best understand what empathy truly is; sympathy is what I think another person must be feeling, but empathy is to get in touch with what it would be like to be in the other person’s shoes and feel what the other feels. It is emotional compassion that connects personally with another person’s experience.

Empathy is a place we find emotional connection. Beyond common ground on an intellectual level, empathy helps us find a place of common ground on a heart level. It is through empathy that we get in touch with what we have in common as human beings - the need to be valued, known, and loved. So, what does it look like and require of us to bring empathy into our conflicts, disagreement, and tension?

  1. Start with a kind word - Remember the common human needs and start by communicating what you know about them that you value and love. This will help disarm you as much as it will help disarm them.

  2. Show genuine concern - As pointed out in our last post, conflict tends to escalate when we put all our focus on our own perspective. Coming to an issue with empathy requires being concerned about the other person and the relationship, not just on what we want to prove or gain.

  3. Bring up the problem - Keep the issue in focus, rather than making the person the focus. If the conflict is about a behaviour, label the behaviour, not the person. Avoid using judgement statements or cutting words. Instead, use the following approach: “When you say / do …. I feel / think....What I need is…” Never forget, once a word is out, it can’t be put back.

  4. Invite their perspective - This is the heart of empathy and makes it a superpower, because typical conflict is self-centred but empathy changes that. “Empathy means stepping into the other person’s shoes and seeing their view of the conflict situation through their eyes, and not through your eyes. Empathy involves accurately paraphrasing and reflecting back feelings, and then asking questions about how the current situation could be changed.”

  5. Express confidence in your combined ability to find a solution. Showing empathy does not mean that you agree with the other person and it does not mean that you have to accept their perspective as entirely accurate, because in reality both perspectives are limited. Instead, using empathy helps focus conversations on the goal of finding a reasonable course of action that cares for both sides, avoiding the pitfall of staying stuck in your own perspective.

The information on this email/blog is intended for general education purposes and should not be relied upon as a substitute for professional and/or medical advice.

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