Conflict & Empathy

“Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” This is one of my favorite sayings. As humans, when we get into a disagreement or conflict with another person, our instinct and deepest need is to feel heard and understood. Therefore, our initial words are centered around expressing our experience and opinion to the other person. There’s nothing inherently wrong with wanting to express ourselves authentically to others, but the problem is that ALL of us have this same need and instinct, and so when in a conflict both people are just focused on getting their own need for understanding met, nobody is listening and the conversation becomes unproductive at best.

But when one person rises above their initial reaction, puts their own agenda on the back burner, and actively listens to the other person and truly tries to see what they see and feel what they feel, a productive dialogue can occur. When you seek first to understand the person you are in conflict with, the other person feels relieved because their need for being understood is fulfilled. They don’t have to keep arguing and restating their experience or opinion to you. They are much more likely to be open to now hearing what you have to say.

Next time you get into a spat with your partner, friend or co-worker, give this a try. Recognize your strong initial desire to express your side of things, defend your position, etc. but then gently set that aside. Focus on the other person’s viewpoint. Reflect back to them what they are expressing, using terms such as, “It seems like you felt…”, “It sounds like…”, and “I can see how you would feel that way because…”. Remember that this does not necessarily mean you are agreeing with them or letting them off the hook. It just means you are offering empathy and understanding, which will help to ease the tension, and counterintuitively, will ultimately lead to your own needs being met as well.