• NobleEdge

Why is empathy so important in resolving conflict?

Updated: Jan 11



Want to become an expert at managing conflict? You won’t get there from listening to a TED talk. Or reading an article. Or even attending a class.


The key skill to managing conflict is to become an empathetic person—not just a person who knows some empathy “techniques,” no matter how adroitly they wield those techniques. Someone who is empathetic at his/her core, someone whose go-to response—in fact, their instinct—is to think empathetically.


What does empathy mean?


Empathy is the capacity to understand or feel what another person is experiencing from their frame of reference. That is, to put yourself in someone else’s position. Other definitions of empathy include compassion, sympathy, tender-heartedness, humanity.


Some people are born empathic. I’ve met them and I’m envious. The rest of us have to practice—but it’s practice well spent. It takes patience and dedication to change how you see other people and their experience of life. Oh, but what an amazing experience it is!


In this post, we will discuss why empathy is so important when it comes to managing conflict. Then we’ll look at some ways you can build your empathy muscle by making empathy a daily part of your life.


Ready to become more empathetic? Let’s go!


Why is empathy so important in resolving conflict?


In our leadership workshop “The You Turn: from Conflict to Collaboration,” we explore the destructive and constructive behaviors in managing conflict. (See: Are you making all the wrong choices during conflict?)


Of the seven constructive behaviors, arguably the most important behavior is what we call Perspective Taking—putting yourself in the other person’s position and trying to understand their point of view as if it were your own. The six remaining constructive behaviors flow from this “other-centered” mindset.


This is so critical because of the nature of conflict. So much of it is based on misunderstandings—and misunderstanding is to be expected when two people with different values, perceptions and beliefs work together on a common goal. (One of the first misunderstandings is that the two people may have opposing ideas of just what exactly that common goal is!) Of course, we misunderstand. It’s baked into being individually human.


Doing the hard work of becoming more empathetic, day by day


Much of the solution is taking constructive behaviors and using them outside of conflict—just your day-to-day living experience as a human. When conflict does arise in the workplace or at home, you don’t have to strain to remember “What did I learn in that workshop again?”—maybe pulling out the wallet card they gave you when finished the training to remember the high points.


You want to be automatically prepared. In this case, you want to be automatically empathetic.


Practice makes perfect. Which means you have to do it a lot—and it also means you might not be so great at it at first. Give yourself some grace. You’re a work in progress. With that in mind, here are some practical ways you can cultivate empathy on a daily basis:


Every day, Every conversation


In every conversation, really listen, even the brief, seemingly innocuous ones. It’s not easy. Listening is harder than speaking. You have to attend to opinions you may strongly disagree with.


Probe in a non-judgmental way. That is, instead of asking “You don’t really believe that, do you?” say “Tell me more about why you think that.” Suspend judgment. Allow them to rant, if they want, saying something like, “I can tell you really feel strongly about this!”


Paraphrase their response back to them to see if you’re really understanding. (See: Understanding other perspectives through active listening.)


Seek out opportunities to stretch your empathy muscles


On an ongoing basis, reach out to people who are different than you—not just at work but everywhere. We tend to live in bubbles, surrounding ourselves with people who look like us, vote like us, earn like us, etc.


This will require you to go out of your comfort zone. Talk to strangers or maybe once a week invite a work colleague you don’t know well to step out for a cup of coffee (virtual or in-person). Make it someone who is a different age/gender than you, someone who works outside of your immediate team. Maybe someone you’ve been avoiding!


On your walk to the coffee shop (or if virtual), go beyond small talk. Ask them about their daily life—their stressors. What’s their commute like? How do they balance parenthood and a career? What keeps them up at night? What gives them joy?


Let others be empathetic to you


Strive to be vulnerable—yes, even in the workplace! Ask for help. Don’t worry you’ll look incompetent. Share your true self with people—in the hopes that they might do the same. And when they do, don’t judge!


Wrapping up


If you want to be great at managing conflict, you need increase your empathy skills. And to increase your empathy skills, you have to work at it diligently—every day. Bit by bit you’ll transform into an empathetic person: someone who connects genuinely with others and seeks to understand. Wouldn’t you enjoy meeting someone who did that for you?


Did you like this post? Try R.I.S.K is the Key to Resolving Conflict Productively


Want more information on how you can build your conflict resolution and management skills? Check out our leadership workshop, The You Turn: from Conflict to Collaboration. This online class will provide you the insight and skill-building you need to resolve conflict quickly and build strong, trusting relationships.

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