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Empathy – How Empathetic Are YOU in Conflict?

EmpathyWhat is empathy? Is empathy and sympathy one in the same? Although empathy and sympathy are similar they focus on different aspects of feelings.  Empathy is defined as the ability to share someone else’s feelings. Sometimes empathy is confused with sympathy, which is feeling sorry for someone’s troubles, experience, and sadness.

Feelings connect us to people on a deeper level reminding us that in this fast paced culture, we are alive, and we are human. Edwin Rutsch, the founder of the Center for Building a Culture of Empathy, explained that being empathic involves feeling your way into someone else’s experience.

Being empathetic is not just about understanding from the other person’s perspective, but being fully aware and present in the experience of another. Being present in that individual’s experience, in that moment of happiness, sadness, or even despair can strengthen the connection to that person and also heightens an individual’s view of themselves within the present conflict.

During conflicts we often get stuck on our own feelings and positions because we feel that the other party is not hearing us. I have had instances where I have been told that I am “only hearing what I want to hear” or the other person continues to repeat the same statement over and over again. This is a cry out from that  person, letting me know I really am not understanding what they are going through, or what they are experiencing in that moment. When I focus on the other person as they share with me what they are feeling and experiencing without interrupting them or dismissing their statements, I am being empathic. When someone feels they are being heard, they are less defensive and more open to a resolution, because they have the sense that I care about how they are feeling. Empathy is a humanizing experience, which connects us together.  

The ability to be empathic is not something that is inherited, it is something that can be learned, and must be practiced. The Center for Building a Culture of Empathy is a great resource for tools and strategies regarding empathy. The Center’s founder Edwin Rutsch joined the Texas Conflict Coach® for series of 4 podcasts where he challenged listeners to develop their own metaphor for empathy, and provided strategies and tips for refining the skill of empathy.

Here are some of my personal tips for practicing empathy:

       Remove distractions from your interactions such as mobile devices, gadgets, and computers

       Have self-awareness, know how you feel so you can focus on hearing the other person’s experience

       Have an understanding of what empathy means to you

Remember, as the Greek philosopher Epictetus said “We have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak.”

By Tracy Culbreath

Graduate Student, University of Baltimore – Negotiation and Conflict Management Program


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