When caught in a conflict, the last thing we want to do is be empathetic. Our natural response is often to become defensive, offensive, or to flee from the scene. While these reactions can be effective in getting us away from the original problem, they don’t really help us solve the problem.
So how do we overcome these natural reactions and work through conflict effectively?
Are you dealing with frustrating people in your life?
Theology of The Body reminds us that, at all times, we need to treat other people–even people we disagree with or find offensive, obnoxious, or upsetting–as persons. When we are in conflict, our natural, fallen response is to stop treating our opponent as a person and, instead, see them as an enemy, an idiot, a nuisance, an irritant, or an aggressor. As soon as we start thinking of someone that way, we indulge our sinful tendency to depersonalize the other–treating them as a thing to be ignored, overpowered, dismissed, or shouted down. None of these responses are consistent with our call to create communities of love and to treat others as unique and unrepeatable persons deserving of dignity and respect. So what do we do? We empathize. Empathy is the quality that allows us to accept that people do things for reasons that make sense to them and that we are obliged to do what we can to understand those reasons. Empathy does not require us to agree with what the other person thinks, approve of what they are doing, or excuse any offenses. It simply requires us to assume that–whatever they are doing–there is at least a positive intention or need that is driving their thoughts, words, or actions. Empathy gives us a starting point for respectful change. It reminds us that the best defense is not a good offense but rather compassion. Empathy allows us to be strong enough to encounter someone we disagree with and say, “Help me understand what you are trying to do and then let’s work together to find a respectful way to meet that need.”
Although empathy in conflict is important, it can often be difficult. Here are three steps to effectively cultivating empathy in difficult situations:
1. Let God Be Your Mediator–It often doesn’t occur to us, but it’s tremendously helpful to ask God to mediate our conflicts. Anytime you feel your temperature rising, remind yourself to “STOP!” Then invite God in with a prayer that goes something like, “Lord, help us to really listen to each other and find ways to take care of each other through our disagreement and find solutions that glorify you.” Then, take a breath, and solve the problem. Remember, you are a Christian. That means we invite Christ into all we do. Don’t handle conflicts on your own. Ask God for the grace to find peaceful, loving, mutually-satisfying solutions to all the disagreements with the people in your life.
2. Practice Conflict Virtues–When you are dealing with conflict, remind yourself to ask, “What virtues do I need to handle this well?” Patience? Understanding? Consideration? Self-Control? Assertiveness? Take a brief moment to identify the virtues or qualities that would help you handle the present disagreement well. If that sounds a little pie-in-the-sky, it isn’t. In fact a recent study found that people who naturally practice what researchers called “virtue based problem solving” do a better job of keeping their cool in conflict, finding effective, objective solutions to conflict, and recovering more quickly from conflict. Faith and science agree. Not only is it possible to be more intentional about bringing Christian virtue into disagreements, it’s the key to peace.
3. Treat Resistance as a Message–We have a tendency to treat resistance as stubbornness that has to be overcome by talking even louder.. Avoid this. Learn to see resistance as communication. When the other person is resistant or reluctant to your ideas or commands, what they are really saying is, “But if I do what you’re asking, how will I get to do this thing that is also important to me?” If you are getting resistance about your needs or concerns from someone else, don’t get defensive. Instead, stop and say, “Obviously, I need you to take what I’ve said seriously, but what are you trying to tell me that you need?” Then make a plan for meeting that need. You’ll be amazed how often this causes resistance or even disobedience to evaporate without the power struggle. Treat resistance as a message. Identify the need. Create a solution, and move on.
For more resources for dealing with conflict effectively, visit us online at CatholicCounselors.com.