Monday, March 11, 2013

Empathy and Conflict

I'm in the middle of reading a fascinating book, "Getting to Yes". It's all about learning the best ways to negotiate to agreement.

What strikes me reading this book is how much impact negotiation has on our everyday lives. For instance, if I learn how to negotiate better with my family I can have a happier life. If I learn how to negotiate better with my workmates I can have a more relaxed workplace existence.


As a kid, I loved to argue with my family. I loved to get into a heated debate, with each side fighting for their points. I firmly believed I was right all the time (of course, ha ha) and therefore it was in my best interests to present my points vehemently. I thought if I was just willful enough, they would see my point of view.

When I tried to do this with strangers or co-workers, I was met with anger. Presenting my position seemed to be the quickest way to tick people off. For example, if someone asked me the question, "Why are you a vegetarian" my response would be to present my position:

- what reasons I used when I chose a vegetarian lifestyle
- what things I saw (and continued to see) that encouraged me to choose this lifestyle
- the benefits of this choice that I saw (and continued to see) for myself

This kind of stuff would really get people angry. They would fight and argue with me, as if what I had said to them was an attack. They would yell, or otherwise express anger, and try to tell me what I was doing was wrong. I have always had a hard time understanding why people would react this way.

This book I'm reading about the ways to negotiate has made me see these interactions differently. If a person is starting a conversation by stating a position, according to the book, this person's comments can be interpreted as a personal attack or an attack on ideas. It is (as a result) natural for a person to respond to an 'attack' with a defensive posture, and to get angry. Not that everyone responds this way! But many people do.

What does all this have to do with empathy? Well one of the ways that the book talks about approaching a possible conflict is to have empathy for the other person. To start by trying to see things from their point of view, to put yourself in their shoes. Here's how I would redo the above 'vegetarian' conversation with empathy and with the ideas in this book:

Q: "Why are you a vegetarian?"

A: "That's an interesting question, I get that quite a lot. I'm wondering what is driving your question, can you tell me more about your understanding of vegetarianism?"

What are your hot-button topics, what ideas have you tried to present that have set people 'off''?

P.S. I've been asked recently 'how's Lucy' and I would just like to say that she's handled the winter just great. The ground is getting soft and her claws are getting muddy, but she seems to love being outside on these early spring days.



susan thom said...

hi janet,
i have been on a constant journey, trying to improve myself to the point of knowing how to think, act, and react in a better, more positive way.
when i read exactly what you were saying about the tone of your voice, the way you choose your words, not starting a sentence in a threatening or aggravated way, etc., it changed me for the better, with all concerned, kids and adults.
"clean your room now" was not the proper way. "your room is getting kind of messy, please straighten it up a little when you're done with your homework" or something to that affect.
"hand me that remote" doesn't sound as friendly and agreeable as "would you please hand me that remote?"
it doesn't seem like a lot, but it truly does make a big difference.
and it's something that becomes easier with practice, and before you know it, you are more pleasant and agreeable to all, and there is more peace and self confidence and self esteem.
do you have a kitty?
my best to you,

Janet said...

Hi Sue,

Thanks for your comments!

I don't have a kitty, I used to though. I grew up in a cat family.