Years ago, before I married and had children, I was a dedicated student of conflict resolution, learning to mediate between people and training others how to resolve conflicts.
One of the key qualities of a mediator, I discovered, is empathy. Simply put, empathy is the ability to step imaginatively into the shoes of another person, understanding their feelings and thoughts and being able to respond constructively.
Contrary to popular belief, there’s nothing fuzzy, feel-good about empathy; empathy is not the same as kindness, pity or emotional sensitivity.
Empathy is a skill, an art even, and as such, it needs to be cultivated.
Some people seem to connect with their empathic abilities quite naturally; others need to work a little bit harder to develop their empathic skills. Personally, I belong to the latter category.
For an untrained person, it can be tough to listen and respond empathically to someone with whom we have a disagreement, and despite my years of training, I still find it exceedingly hard at times to empathise with people I dislike or with whom I vehemently disagree. What helps me, in such situations, is to focus not on the other person’s opinions, beliefs and actions, but on their needs.
For beneath the surface, we all share pretty much the same fundamental human needs – love, acceptance, recognition, respect, understanding, security, to name but a few – although we may use very different strategies for satisfying those needs. And it’s the strategies, not the needs themselves, that give rise to conflict.
In a time like ours, when fear and insecurity provides fertile ground for objectification, demonization and aggression, and we’re faced with an unprecedented uncertainty about our future as a human species, the cultivation of empathy is perhaps more important than ever.
The dominant culture of communication, it seems, is governed by a mentality of debate and criticism that turn people into adversaries bent on beating each other. But if history has taught us anything, it is that conflicts are rarely if ever resolved by adversarial means.
Winning a debate make us look clever, but it’s not the way to resolve our differences or the basis on which to make life-changing decisions. To affect meaningful change that improves people’s lives and affirms our essential wholeness, we need to invest ourselves in cultivating a culture of communication rooted in empathy, respect for the other and dialogue.