Empathy has gotten a lot of press recently, and rightly so. Empathy fosters relational connections that transcend age, race, sex, culture, experience, belief, and circumstance.
Yet it can be difficult to express empathy in the midst of interpersonal conflict.
Here’s a quick primer on empathy and using it effectively:
- Empathy is a way to leverage universal emotional responses to establish relational connections; it is not about adopting someone else’s feelings in order to show your support.
- Empathy is not restricted by shared experiences; it requires neither specific understanding of a situation nor a shared perspective.
- Empathy does not equate to agreement, approval, forgiveness, or even imply tacit acceptance.
- Empathy does not exempt the recipient from facing the consequences of their actions; it is simply a compassionate acknowledgment of their feelings.
Empathy is hardest to express in the midst of conflict, but that’s when it’s most helpful. Just remember to focus on the emotion rather than the issue.
In a political argument with your brother-in-law, you don’t have to empathize with his position on gun control to empathize with his commitment to being a part of the decision-making process and his desire to do what is best for his country. “We may not see eye to eye on the methods, but I can appreciate how seriously you take this issue and your desire to make the best decision for our country.” Will this guarantee that things between you and your brother-in-law will be harmonious from that moment on…absolutely not! But it does allow you to act in a way that is congruent with the person you aspire to be rather than react to the tone set by someone else.
In a heated argument with your teen about attending an event, “I can tell that you’re angry about this decision and I know how frustrating it feels to not have authority over your own life. I hate that feeling too and I hate being in the position to make you feel that way, but I can’t give you the answer you want.”