Conflict is never fun…
In fact, imagining conflict often brings to mind massive explosions, bloody battles, and hard-charging opponents ready to fight to the death.
Verbal conflicts often feel that way too. As much as the “sticks and stones” lyric tries to convince us otherwise—our experience shows us that words do hurt and can leave lasting damage to our emotional psyche.
In order to get anywhere meaningful—we have to become better at managing the conflict we try to avoid. That is why having keys to help us navigate through what doesn’t come naturally is so critical to personal and professional growth.
We’d love to avoid conflict, manage risk out of every equation, and solve our problems without obstacles—but that utopia simply doesn’t exist.
If we are wise, we will allow the pain from previous conflicts to spur us on to learning the tools necessary to engage conflict in a meaningful and effective way.
One of the most critical keys I’ve found in working with hundreds of organizations to navigate through conflict is surprisingly EMPATHY.
Although empathy has become a bit of a buzz word in our society—I am increasingly shocked that few people know what it really means.
Empathy DOES NOT mean, I feel your pain. That’s sympathy.
Empathy means to understand. Simply put, it means that you have the ability to take in and really ‘get’ what the other party is sharing—so much so that they feel like you have really heard them as well as what they are trying to say.
Understanding and agreeing are NOT the same thing.
Just because I hear you and understand what you are saying—that does NOT mean I agree fully with what you said, how you said it, or even how you are reacting to what I just shared.
I may react emotionally empathetic to all that you are presenting—but that’s separate from coming into agreement with you.
In the context of a difficult conversation, I may empathize while completely disagreeing with you about what happened to cause the conflict, and what the best solution is moving forward.
In every conflict, two things are banging up against each other. In difficult conversations, it’s mostly the banging of ideas. Everyone has their own perspective, feelings, and ways of relating to those ideas.
Most difficult conversations get thrown off the rails with very little accomplished because neither party is willing to empathize. People are not taking the time to listen or understand even the basics of what the other person is saying.
Why is this? Often it is because we have bought into two misconceptions currently prominent in our culture:
Misconception #1: To really listen to someone means you must agree with them.
Misconception #2: If you don’t agree with someone, you must hate them.
Both of these ideas are false and undermine healthy dialogue.
It’s imperative that two parties be able to share their thoughts, feelings and perspectives without the other one shutting them down, interrupting them, or dismissing them out right.
Instead, we must work towards gathering the right informational ‘puzzle pieces’ of why the conflict is happening in the first place.
An empathic listener will ask the following questions:
In your perspective, what happened?
How did that make you feel?
What else contributed towards this problem?
How could this have been prevented, in your mind?
These questions engage the person in conversation and reflect back what they hear the other party saying.
Reflective listening, or the ability to communicate back to the person in your own words what you hear the person sharing, is empathic listening.
Be prepared to be wrong. That’s okay. It’s helpful when the other party says, “No, actually I was not saying that, I was saying this …”
When you say, “I’m sorry, let me try to understand” you are going a long way towards building a better relationship with this person—whether you end up agreeing with them or not.
Reflective listening is all too rare in the moments when it is needed the most. It is as the conflict escalates that more questions need to be asked, more tentative language used, and more informational puzzle pieces gathered.
If your angle is to try to find agreement with the other party during every point you are making—you are going to end up wrestling your agenda too early and often in the conversation.
If I believe that I MUST agree with you on each point before we can proceed— we will never get anywhere.
In fact, we will get lost in the weeds of the conversation and risk misunderstanding the factors that are at the root of the conflict.
Don’t wrestle over an issue too early in a conversation or you are not going to hear each other at all. You’ll simply continue to bang away ideas with no fruitful end or result.
The problem is not trying to get to resolution—it’s trying to get there too quickly. If you take the right approach, you’ll strengthen the relationship. Even though you may disagree, you want to hear the other party out.
Resist wrestling. Gather puzzle pieces of perspective. Push away the urge to find agreement too quickly and trust that agreement will arise if and when the right pieces are on the table.
Realize that if you can become effective at creating an environment for people to share their thoughts and feelings, not only are you going to grow relationships—you are going to help solve more and more conflicts.
Why? Because you are able to see all the angles of perspective, challenge assumptions, and actually get down to the root of the issues.
This sets up success in the conversation. Unresolved conflict is often the result of not collecting informational puzzle pieces.
Remember, the heart posture of empathic listening asks:
What are you thinking?
I noticed you got emotional when you said that, what are you feeling?
What’s most important to you in all of this?
After collecting those pieces of information, you can share what you are thinking, feeling, and what’s important to you. Give the other party a chance to listen empathically.
You are the authority on you, they are the authority on themselves.
Say back to them what they are saying as effectively as possible.
Remember, we were all born with two ears and one mouth for a reason! Listen twice as much (or more) than you speak.
In all of this you want to remain ‘agenda-free’ as much as possible. Declaring up front your intention to gather perspectives without knowing exactly where the conversation is going will help the other party open up.
If you act like you know the solution before the conversation has even begun—people will shut down and it will be difficult to work towards agreement and consensus effectively.
Conflict resolution is process-based. The process is more important than the destination, so take time to let empathy do its work.
Want to become more effective at managing conflict in the workplace?
It comes down to having difficult conversations, but sometimes our conversations don’t play out that well, run off the rails, and people leave feeling demoralized or belittled. We know what it’s like to walk away from a conversation that we are still carrying hours, days, or even years later.
That is why we’ve created this FREE resource entitled 9 Reasons Why Difficult Conversations Are So Hard (and what to do about them) It will help you start to navigate even the most challenging discussions. Click here to download the guide now!