How Empathy Grounds Disagreement

Dealing with disagreement feels like conflict – having an opposing position, experiencing discomfort, and a desire to be right or win. The intensity of disagreements can vary greatly based on the stakes. Sometimes disagreements are just differences of preferences or result from unexamined interactions and habitual moods. From “I don’t like the way you did the dishes,” to “I need to understand how you could be a white supremacist,” many of the same truths and tactics apply.

Acknowledging and staying open to the discomfort is a good place to start. Check inside first. Once you have determined your feeling, you can address the cause of that feeling in yourself and honor its purpose.

“Make emotions explicit and acknowledge them as legitimate.” – William Ury, Getting to Yes

Here is a chart of the “six basic” feelings and their causes put forth by Caruso and Salovey in their MSCEIT Emotional Intelligence Test workshop. I added the “message” column to suggest what the emotion may be telling us to do:

The purpose of starting with your feeling is that it allows you to take responsibility in the situation. Remember how a ten-second pause is recommended for conflict. Use that ten seconds for this exploration:

1.      Be precise about how you feel in the situation, and how you want to feel.

“I feel dismissed and the injustice of that dismissal makes me angry and sad. I want to feel respected and appreciated.”

 2.      Connect to your authentic feeling with self-empathy. Feel the anger and the sadness of being dismissed. Acknowledge that your feeling is an appropriate response. Respect and embrace the anger and sadness and allow your vulnerability. Experiencing self-empathy can take the bite out of anger and inspire simple and direct communication. You’re able to do what you need to do and say what you need to say without the need for validation or aggression.

3.      Because you have validated the emotions you felt, it is more possible for you to have an open conversation about your desire to be respected and appreciated. You won’t need to defend yourself or blame the other person for your feelings.

4.      How might simply reporting your reaction sound?

Self-empathy can level the ground in disagreement because it connects us to empathy. Empathy is a powerful regulator. We’re able to feel more certainty in our feelings because we’ve accepted them. With, less sense of loss, threat, or challenge we are less apt to blame others involved for our discomfort. We’re not wasting energy hiding our vulnerability. We relax with a sense of calm. That gives the other person the space to take responsibility for their feelings. It’s an extension of empathy. That space enables ease.

6.      Next, consider what winning looks like. What’s important? What’s a true win? Western society is strongly competitive, so we may be motivated to be right and win the argument while forgetting our true values.

Might you value the relationship more than the sense of superiority a win may give you?

7.      How high are the stakes? When the stakes are high emotions are deeply felt. We’re conditioned to go full fight adhering to good vs. bad, and win vs. lose mindsets. However, that intensity does not lessen the positive effects of engaging in self-empathy/empathy, but it takes more courage.

Deeyah Khan, an amazing Documentary Director who did a film on white supremacists, says that often “the victim” has to take the first step to be courageous and vulnerable. In many disagreements, both parties feel victimized by their discomfort. It’s a toss-up. When we choose to open and connect we set the ground for understanding. Why not be the courageous one?

Consider the examples of Gandhi, Victor Frankl, Martin Luther King, Mandela, and the negotiated Israel/Syria Disengagement Agreement of 1974, The 1998 Belfast Agreement, and others.

Using self-empathy to access empathy for others, we may decide our position wasn’t really important. Sometimes “walking away and letting it be” is the best option. Or through listening and expressing empathy, we may engage the other party. Empathy might allow us to concede we were both acting from habitual patterns instead of better intentions and values. If we’re still at odds, more extensive exploration and negotiation may be necessary.

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