Use Empathy To Deescalate Conflict at Work and Home

When someone’s behavior provokes you, here’s a suggestion on how to communicate in a manner that will not result in an argument.

The human experience, which is centered on the people we work with and love, is inclusive of one undeniable fact – we bring our personal history to the table… every single time.

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Outside of strangers, your collective feelings, fears, joys, and concerns are exposed to others when you engage with them. There’s no escaping it, even if it represents a microcosm of your emotions. We’re not fish who forget from whence we came by the time we cross from one side of the fish tank to the other. We bring prejudice, hope, and past experiences to each and every engagement.

The bias and assumptions we bring sometimes get us into trouble, which Alexander Pope summed up in one single phrase: “To err is human.”

Emotions, with a coworker who may not be unconscious of his or her micro-aggressions or a relative who’s shortcomings irk you, can spill over. It’s human nature, but how we deal with it represents our response and if you raise your temper, you may be at fault yourself.

For example, did you eventually breakdown and bark one day at you’re casual coffee-sipping officemate… who sipped one too many times? Was it your snoring wife? She was unconscious, for the record.

Consider your response… how did you manage it? Did it escalate and become a fight?

What about more serious situations at work: a micro-aggression your boss projects that continues unabated? What if you are a person of color and notice a pattern of behavior that is unbecoming, one that is unfit for the workplace?

In my forthcoming book, The Father Apprentice, I share a suggestion to new dads about how to manage these kinds of challenges so it does not result in a negative outcome. My mother, who earned her Master’s degree in counseling, shared this suggestion with me. It’s quite effective.

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Back to the conflict at hand. You’re upset, your frustration grows, and you decide it’s time to confront the perpetrator. Your approach starts off on the wrong foot when you say, “Can we talk about something you do that’s bothering me?” Or, perhaps it’s, “Why do you have to do that? Enough already!”

You just put the person you’re speaking to on the defense. Now this person has his/her guard up. And from their point of view, they are comfortable how they conduct themselves… based on their personal experiences.

An example when this is not the case? Teenagers, who wander about, insecure and second-guessing themselves, because they have no idea who they are yet. Find me a 13-year-old with extreme self confidence and conviction… good luck doing so.

To manage this, break it down into X and Y. Express what they are doing and how it makes you feel. This is referred to as empathetic communication.

Examples:

‘John, when you curse on conference calls, it makes me feel uncomfortable about how the clients are going to respond.’

‘Honey, when you tell me I’m not spending enough time with junior, despite the fact I am on a deadline, it makes me feel horrible that I’m letting the whole family down.’

In this context, the person has one (and only one thing) to focus on: your feelings. It’s not a combative approach, your physical appearance (furrowed brows, crossed arms) are not as relevant, and your emotional reaction to him/her is hard to ignore. Feelings count.

More often than not, they respond with empathy.

For reference—Imagine if the character, Rick Vaughn (played by Charlie Sheen) in the movie, Major League, had approached his manager differently? He would have gotten the answer he wanted without all the drama.

The workplace, which features goals, salaries, bosses, and human resource departments, is a more serious environment. What if we collectively agreed to communicate with one another in a manner that expresses our feelings, and provide the perpetrator the means to course-correct his/her behavior? What if we start with this process first and remove friction and fear from reprisals or arguments? This may provide the means to espouse a more inclusive workplace.

Here’s the suggested process—start the conversation with empathetic communication, provide the person the opportunity to respond, judge them with sincerity, and follow-up with an email to thank the person for addressing your concerns. Thereafter, wait to see if it happens again and if they change their behavior, forgive and move forward.

If not, and this micro-aggression continues unabated at work, there’s an email between the two of you that speaks to the concern at hand.

Provide yourself the means to forgive, and the person in question, to reflect upon their behavior. It’s not unlike the original phrase noted earlier.

To err is human, but providing the means to forgive someone, represents the humane response.

If you enjoyed this story, check out the following:

When Karma Impacted my Career

In The Post-Pandemic World, What Will We Think About Money?

How to Manage/Identify a Unique Workplace Species: The Chicken Hawk Boss

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