Conflict is one of those things that no matter how hard you try, it’s unavoidable. At some point, you will end up in conflict with another person—likely someone you love. When that happens, it’s best to understand and practice empathy rather than getting defensive or shutting down.
Empathy allows you to really hear the other person’s perspective and feelings so that you can understand where they’re coming from. You are acting as a mirror for the other person and for yourself when you allow the free-flowing process of shared thoughts to take place. This gives the conflict a chance to calm down rather than escalate.
Here’s how to bring more empathy to the conflicts you experience.
Empathy considers the other person
In any dialogue tied to conflict, whether it is with a spouse, child, partner, coworker, etc., only empathy can bridge the gap which is the first step in conflict resolution.
According to Berkeley, empathy is the ability to sense other people’s emotions, as well as imagine what another person might be feeling, thinking, or experiencing.
In practicing empathy, you have to actively listen to the other person. If you feel yourself getting anxious or unable to listen in the moment, ask the other person for a moment to collect your thoughts so that you can be present for them. Then take a few moments to focus your breath, which will enable you to tune into being present.
Once you’re ready, reapproach the conversation. Ask yourself, “Am I really listening? What is important to this person? Am I missing any underlying concerns?” It is important to ask questions that expand on the underlying concerns which may not be at first apparent.
This lays the foundation for the other person in the conflict to feel that you are tuning into their deeper concerns. You shouldn’t feel the need to give answers or solutions because hearing is about really listening and not problem-solving.
You can only reach real solutions after you both took the time and consideration to understand the other person’s perspective. It’s not always easy, but this rapport strengthens the relationship.
Empathy, especially within conflict resolution, is something that you can practice daily within most conversations you have. The more you practice it outside of actual conflict, the stronger your empathy muscles will become enabling you to utilize them in any situation.
According to the Journal of Cognitive Science, one way to practice empathy is to actively imagine what other people are feeling. The key is to allow your senses and emotions to engage in the visualization of what someone else is experiencing. This allows you to practice understanding someone else’s perspective so that when you are in conflict, your body understands how to get into an empathetic state so that you can listen in a deeper way.
Mindfulness and meditation are other great practices for honing your empathy skills. Building mindfulness habits allows you to stay present, keeping your mind from racing or judging in the moment. These skills allow you to keep your body from going into a fight or flight state so that you can manage your stress responses. When your body is protecting itself, it’s difficult to consider the other person. However, when you’re grounded and present, you have the capacity to take on another perspective and respond with openness.
How guilt and shame affect empathy
When practicing empathy, it’s important to understand what will help and what will hurt the process. One study found that guilt helped people relate to the perspectives of others more—meaning people who were prone to experiencing guilt expressed more empathy in their relationships. Guilt is an emotion that helps you connect with others and reflect on your behavior. This is particularly important whenever you’re in conflict because it’s guilt that gives you the power to step back, consider another perspective, and increase your awareness of how your actions affect someone else, deepening your empathetic capacity.
Shame is different from guilt in that you are more likely to turn on your self-preservation mechanism which involves putting up an emotional wall. As a result, the same study found that shame does not evoke deeper empathy and actually harmed relationships. People who experienced shame showed signs of more personal distress, which kept them from being able to focus on the other person’s perspective. The process of shame shuts down your capacity for empathy in order to protect yourself from the distress you’re experiencing.
When dealing with conflict, it’s important to understand how to communicate in a manner that helps keep the other person (as well as yourself) out of shame. If the idea is to help the other person understand the impact of their actions or to better understand your feelings, then inducing shame in the other person will only push them away from you, creating a bigger communication breakdown.
Implementing empathy practices
Now that you know what empathy is, how to practice it, and what will break it down, it’s time to implement empathy practices into your life. You can do this at home with your significant other, children, roommates, and neighbors. You can also do this at work and with your friend group.
The key is to make this part of your daily routine so that developing your empathy becomes a habit. You can also do simple things like reading about people in settings completely different from yours so you can empathize with how other cultures or social-economic groups live and experience life. Also, deep listening and visualizing what people are experiencing will help you to better stand in their place. To ensure that you are really understanding where they are coming from, you can delve in with questions like – “as I understand it….” paraphrasing back to yourself what you just heard. Give the person a chance to add to or clarify their statement.
The more you build on these empathy skills, the stronger your connection will become with the people around you.