In Mediation, Is Empathy Enough or Even Necessary?

On June 6, 2016, the Pasadena Professional Development Group of the Southern California Mediation Association held its monthly meeting and the discussion topic was “Is empathy enough or even necessary?”. They had the same discussion topic at the May meeting of the South Bay Professional Development Group.

In case there’s any doubt, I’d like to share an excerpt from Hard Feelings: The Role of Empathy in Engaging Armed Groups by the Center for Empathy in International Affairs:

“Constructive dialogue with non-state armed groups is hugely important – to prevent, mitigate or resolve violent conflict….

Without engaging with others, including with armed groups, it is unrealistic to expect empathy to develop and humanisation to take place….

The lens through which we look at someone or a group of people has a major impact on how we perceive, understand and respond to them. Furthermore, empathy is not linear but dynamic as individuals seek to comprehend one another, and, through interaction, influence each other’s thinking and understanding….

A serious problem in contemporary foreign policy-making is the misunderstanding or misjudgement of armed groups by outsiders, which can result in flawed policies and missed opportunities. Policymakers and politicians are inclined to over-simplify complex problems, which leads to flawed or ineffective policy decisions….

Empathy can potentially help policy-makers overcome their own biases relating to armed groups and better understand the root causes and drivers of conflict. The best diplomats and policymakers empathize but this is generally not acknowledged….

However, while there is an interest within governments in achieving a better understanding of armed groups, those who attempt to do this are sometimes treated as being sympathetic towards such groups, or even approving of them….

Through helping to provide a deeper understanding of the parties, empathy has the potential to enable mediators to be more strategic in terms of when and how to address difficult issues. Empathy, in terms of building rapport, can also potentially help to sustain dialogue during periods when talks break down.

If we empathize with others, we need to be conscious about why and how we are empathizing and what purpose it serves.

Empathy is clearly not a panacea. It is an additional approach that can help to enhance understanding, and may help parties to reflect on their own behaviour and how they are perceived by their adversary. It is one of a range of strategies and approaches….

Peacebuilding is about influencing processes of social change, which only happens through human relationships. Investing in and enhancing relationships allows practitioners to contribute to social change and conflict resolution–and there is a powerful link between building relationships and the practice of empathy….

In many cases, it is important for mediators to have a degree of empathy for the groups they work with….

Empathy challenges our own biases. Empathy is barely discussed in the literature on peacebuilding because it is seen as feminised. There is the un-nuanced notion that being professional precludes being emotional.

Yet, it is also true that a mediator’s level of emotional engagement needs to be kept in check….

The key for any mediator is to build trust between the parties, which usually requires knowledge of the parties and the conflict, active listening, engagement, support and guidance….

Confident parties are sometimes more inclined to empathize as they have the security and self assurance to do so. Conversely, research suggests that weaker parties tend to be more adept at empathizing because they are forced to do so in order to protect their interests….

Empathy is a complex concept and is certainly no panacea, but has an important role in this endeavour….

It is recommended that organisations involved in conflict resolution:

• Acknowledge empathy: More explicitly acknowledge the critical role of empathy in the practice of peacebuilding and mediation, especially its role in expanding understanding, as well as contributing to and shaping relationships.

• Incorporate empathy into pedagogy: Introduce empathy into standard mediation and peacebuilding pedagogy.

• Offer training: Ensure peacebuilding professionals and mediators have the opportunity to participate in workshops or trainings that seek to enhance their capacity to empathize.

• Encourage self-awareness: Promote greater consciousness among practitioners of how, when and with whom they empathize, as well as the limits and risks of empathizing.

• Expand selection criteria: Include empathy skills in criteria for the selection of practitioners.

Finally, governments, foundations and educational institutions should support further scientific research, study and discussion among experts, practitioners and policy-makers, on the role of empathy in conflict resolution, which could help to throw more light on this complex and important issue.”

My colleague, Bill Eddy, LCSW, Esq., and co-founder of the High Conflict Institute has long encouraged people to “Connect with EAR Statements” to de-escalate conflict.  

Eddy briefly describes these concepts as follows:

Empathy is the ability to sincerely identify with and care about another person’s feelings and life experience….

Attention [involves letting] the person know that you really want to pay attention to his or her concerns…. To pay full attention to someone, you’ll need to focus on listening to what he or she has to say without interruption for a brief period. This allows you to really understand what the person is experiencing….

Respect [means letting] the person know something that you truly respect about him or her. This could be an accomplishment, a skill the person has developed, or a positive personal quality. As with empathy, this needs to be done as one equal to another and not sound patronizing.” 

According to social science researcher Brené Brown, “empathy is incompatible with shame and judgment.” In other words, it’s impossible to be empathic toward someone you’re judging.

Furthermore, as the Center for Empathy in International Affairs stated, “empathy is a complex concept.” In fact, when Psychology Today shared my article titled Beware of Criticizing Concepts You Don’t Fully Understand over Twitter, it commented, “Empathy is often misunderstood, yet it’s one of the most important skills you can practice.”

As far as the attention aspect of EAR Statements is concerned, Eddy says it requires that you “focus on listening.” 

The following is an excerpt from an article by Carly Schulaka titled Eric Maddox on Effective Negotiating, Successful Intel Gathering, and the Power of Good Listening:

“Good listening is paramount to successful communication, and you can’t be a good listener if you don’t have empathy…. Listening is the foundation [in effective information elicitation]. First and foremost, you must listen, and listening is not an art; it’s a learned skill. One of the primary things about listening is you have to clean your plate mentally. ​If you can clear your mind, your listening will triple…. [Empathy] is another one of the primary things about listening. If you put yourself in somebody else’s shoes, it’s hard not to listen. That’s the key…. Empathy is to listening as water is to the human body. It’s everything.”

With regard to respect, it “includes withholding judgment, valuing their perspective and letting them speak.”

In It’s All Your Fault At Work: Managing Narcissists and Other High-Conflict People, Eddy and his co-author, L. Georgi DiStefano, LCSW state the following:

One of the concerns people have about using EAR statements is that high-conflict people will think you are on their side of the dispute. However, using EAR statements does not mean agreeing with the content of their complaints. It is important to remain neutral about the issue and the details. You don’t need to agree with a high conflict person’s point of view; instead, empathize with the person, not the complaint.”

As powerful as “CARS (Connect with EAR Statements) Skills” may be, they involve learned skills, some of which require an understanding of complex concepts.

Needless to say, when mediators ask “Is empathy enough or even necessary?”, my answer is that empathy is not enough in and of itself, but that it’s most certainly necessary.


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