How to use Empathy in a Conflict

When I speak about using Empathy in a Conflict, what I hear most of the time in response is “I DO understand him, but it’s HIM who refuses to understand ME. HE is the one who needs more Empathy”

And that person might be right, but for me, this is missing the point. This is a clear sign of still thinking in terms of who is right and who is wrong.

A big part of Empathy though, is the skill of being NEUTRAL.

To really work, Empathy needs 2 specific steps

1. Letting go of our own point of view (… at least for a moment)

We tend to connect our thoughts and opinions to our sense of identity. But to truly experience Empathy, we need to be able to detach ourselves from our position and be able to take a look at ourselves from a distance. As if we were observing a stranger defending the same point of view as ourselves.

When I go through this process, as I observe this “stranger” who looks like me, I ask myself: “Is “his” way, the only possible correct way of seeing the situation?” Usually I have to humbly accept that it is not, there are always various ways of seeing the same situation and even though it feels like it, there is no guarantee that my way is the correct one.

And only when we are able to put our own point of view aside, can we progress to the next step…

2. Seeing through the other person’s eyes

Most of the time, we tend to limit our “understanding” of the other person to the level of thoughts related to the situation. But there is so much more going on under the surface.

Seeing through the other person’s eyes, means literally becoming that person. It means projecting ourselves inside their mind. It means feeling what it is like to be in that person’s body.

Whenever I perform this exercise, I ask myself: “When I am seeing the situation through that person’s eyes…
– Do I have to arch my neck back or to lower my eyes to see the person in front of me?”
– Do I look straight in the eyes or do I avoid direct eye contact?”
– How do I stand and move?”
– What is happening to my face? What expression do I wear?”

I might even quickly adopt the posture and the facial expression of the other person and slightly imitate his body language.

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This momentarily personification triggers automatic associations in our unconscious mind and the information we discover this way is much more extensive than just thoughts. Through feeling the other person’s posture, movements, facial expressions… we automatically have a deeper insight of the emotions the other is experiencing which in turn can help us to understand his or her behaviour much better.

And this is only one benefit. The other is that by allowing ourselves to temporarily adopt the other person’s point of view, we are breaking the invisible wall created by the conflict. This releases the tension we might be feeling and takes us out of the “conflict mode”. Now, instead of focusing on winning the discussion, we can create a collaborative alliance and seek a win-win solution.

In my experience, whenever I follow these 2 steps (Letting go of my own point of view and Seeing through the other person’s eyes), I notice an immediate change in how I feel, and most surprisingly I usually also notice subtle changes in the attitude of the other person. It seems as if whenever I let go of the tension and of my desire to be right, on an unconscious level, the other person feels it and follows my lead. Most of the time, the conflict gets resolved very quickly and the relationship deepens.

Taking these steps is not always comfortable but it neither is it very difficult. The most challenging part though is often to take the decision to go through the process because very often it means recognising my own shortcomings and see where I am being stubborn or unreasonable.

But it is worth it, every single time.

The freedom of not identifying myself with my opinions, associated with the insights I receive from truly considering the other person’s point of view, have allowed me to resolve countless conflicts, build stronger relationships with people around me, and most importantly grow as a person.

Try it. On an ongoing conflict, or a past one that still leaves you with a bad after-taste whenever you think about it. And let me know how it worked for you.

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