Read Time: 4 Minutes, plus an activity

Lately I’ve been in lots of meetings and one subject keeps coming up – conflict. As long as we humans continue to get together in groups of two or more and explore new ideas or push boundaries, conflict occurs. I guess it’s a natural part of growth.

Conflict at work presents itself in many ways – interpersonal, among team members, or between departments and functions. It can’t be ignored. If left unresolved, conflict can impact career, income, and quality of life.

In dealing with conflict, its important to first focus on its characteristics. Understand if the conflict is intrinsically destructive, squashing creativity and collaboration under the banner of keeping people ‘in their lane’. Or, is the conflict part of a supportive process, inviting conversation and the sharing of ideas.

I would like to focus on cultivating supportive conflict, and possibly decreasing destructive conflict, using empathy.

Empathy: ability to understand and share the feelings of another

Most of us have either learned or been taught that we should try to see the other person’s point of view. It helps establish common ground and points of differentiation. First, we listen. Then we analyze their thoughts and opinions against our own to develop our case. If you’re doing this, then you’re already moving toward empathy.

Empathy takes the next step. Empathy gives us insight into the “WHY’S” behind other points of view. It calls for us to temporarily suspend our beliefs and opinions and take the personal, social, emotional, professional, and possibly political influences of the other person into consideration. Conversations built around empathy have less conflict, are often more productive, and inevitably more creative.

The good news is that, regardless of your personality, empathy can be learned. We just have to slow down a little and pay a different kind of attention to our relationships. The benefits of practicing empathy are many.

First, we get to use our imagination.
If we imagine ourselves living someone else’s life, we are far more likely to understand why they act and react the way they do. Although the information gathered may not change our mind or our opinion, when practicing empathy we can enter conversations with a higher level of interest and respect.

Second, we get to beef up our listening skills.
We can learn a lot about a person from what we see and hear. LISTEN with as many senses as possible – eyes, ears, and gut. Watching body language, facial expressions and eye contact, and listening to tone of voice, provides a lot of insight into another person’s personality and motivations.

Third, empathy makes us more social.
Here’s how Psychology Today characterizes the benefits of empathy;

‘Empathy facilitates pro-social (helping) behaviors that come from within, rather than being forced, so that we behave in a more compassionate manner’. When we use empathy our ingrained helper response is activated and we are able to work through complex challenges with others more productively’.

But for empathy to become an ingrained response, it, like medicine, the law or yoga, thrives on PRACTICE.

Let’s start practicing with these 6-second empathy builders. These prompts build empathy by increasing our awareness to those around us. Consciously doing these activities will nudge us toward a time when they become part of our unconscious routine.
Perhaps, start off by trying out these activities while on vacation. Observe what happens when you..…

  • Hold the door for someone
  • Let someone go in front of you in line
  • Put down your phone, look up, and notice what and who is around you
  • Ask ‘How was your day?’ then listen to the answer
  • Say ‘It seems like there is something on your mind. Want to talk?’
  • Take a really deep breath, stop talking, and hear another point of view
  • Go for a walk to clear your mind
  • Compliment someone
  • Make eye contact and wish someone ‘Good Morning’
  • Look at yourself in the mirror and smile (if you can accept yourself, its easier to accept someone else’s point of view)
  • Make someone laugh
  • Decide to laugh yourself
  • Ask, ‘How can I help you?’

If you like what happens, take the mindset to work.

The net effect of practicing empathy is a higher level of trust. Without trust, it’s almost impossible for productive collaboration and idea sharing to exist. Without trust, political maneuvering and a whisper network of gossip oozes through our professional and personal life. In these environments destructive conflict is tolerated and sometimes even expected. This isn’t good for us or for business.

The more empathy we can practice, the better we will become at generating the supportive and productive conflict that nurtures ideas and productivity.

Ask your family, friends, and co-workers to join you in the 6-second activities. Watch what happens.

Extra Bonus:
Here’s an oldie, but a goodie. Simon Sinek’s explanation of empathy in his TED Talk,
How Great Leaders Inspire Action

By the way, I give myself a B+ in empathy.
I really want an A.

Was this post helpful? Click here and share your thoughts by Email.

Enjoy these long, sunny August days.
Until next month.