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Four Ways to Practice Empathy in the Midst of Disagreements

How do we connect when we feel someone's perspective or approach is completely different than ours?

Maybe a colleague is expounding too much on a point.

Maybe a customer seems to be asking for way too much.

Maybe a manager is feeling like 10 steps are needed to roll out a new initiative when you're sure it can be done in 3 steps.

Daily or weekly, we run into differences in perspective or approach and in each case, we have the opportunity to have an interaction result in connection vs conflict.

One of my colleagues suggested I write about the topic of practicing empathy, and I agree, this is such an important topic to explore. Here are four ways to form more connection instead of conflict when differences arise:

1) Get curious about the other person's personality style and working style.

Realize you and the other individual may have different personality styles or working styles though may still have a common positive intention in their perspective or approach.

You both have different sets of experiences, different sets of upbringings, different values, and even a different vision personally and professionally.

To get curious about the other person's personality style or working style, you can ask questions within a conversation or disagreement to further understand the other person's perspectives. Listen with an open mind, validating their perspectives before offering your own thoughts. When I am facilitating conflict management training sessions for teams, this is often a place where we actually role play asking questions to seek to understand because this skillset is so critical to creating consensus.

Understanding the other person's personality or working style can help you to adjust your response and communication with the other person in a way that they can better receive what you are saying as well as you also build further trust with that person.

Collaborative conversations happen best when the other individual involved believes you are in their best interest and are ready to genuinely collaborate with them.

2) Identify your intention for this relationship.

If you're engaging with a customer, colleague, manager, or someone else, you may have various intentions. Maybe your intention is to exude a high level of customer service? Maybe your intention is to be seen as a capable team member? Maybe your intention is to be seen as someone who would be great to have on a future project?

Think about where there are opportunities within your conversation(s) to express agreement or to come up with a collaborative solution when differences arise. In Difficult Conversations training sessions I have done, the skillset of building consensus is one I often emphasis as an important piece of turning a difficult conversation into a more collaborative conversation. The book, Crucial Conversations: How to When the Stakes are High, has some amazing strategies for having difficult conversations transition into collaborative conversations that work to meet a common intention.​

Keep your ultimate intentions in mind and if you're pushing back on a point, do it in a way that is tactful and professional. Ask yourself, "Do my tone, words, or actions move us closer to the intention I have in mind or further from it?" Then shift as needed to ensure you move towards your desired intentions for your conversation.

Practicing greater empathy even in the midst of disagreement requires ongoing effort to continue to develop this skill set. I'm sending well wishes your way if this is something you're currently working on!

3) Be aware of how you're managing your emotions within your interactions.

We each have emotions that might get the best of us -- anxiety, frustration, annoyance, sadness, or something else for example.

Recognize what your triggers might be for certain situations and before any situations arise, be working towards proactively decreasing any responses to those triggers that are not positively impacting your relationships.

Your peers, direct reports, and manager are often very aware of the impact of when your triggers are not positively impacting your work relationships.

Utilize trusted peers, mentors, coaches, or others in your network to support you in better managing your emotions. When my executive coaching clients have specific work relationships they would like to improve or cultivate, we often are doing a deep dive about what specifically is happening within that relationship that can be challenging and where the opportunities might be to form more connection. This is something you too can reflect on within your work relationships.

And also utilize other resources like books, podcasts, and videos to further explore key tools for doing this.

Brené Brown's book, Atlas of the Heart is a great deep dive into exploring our emotions and the impact they regularly have on us.

Someone once shared with me that they realized that people who seem to have a more peaceful or collaborative demeanor are often working on this or have worked towards this. And managing our emotions better not only impacts us at work, but it definitely also impacts us personally and even physically. It's worth the effort!

4) Cultivate work relationships to understand others better.

Often, having positive conversations outside of the specific work tasks you're doing with someone can allow you to cultivate more healthy working relationships.

Think about what opportunities you might have to engage in positive conversations to cultivate relationships. Here are a few examples:

  • Celebrating a win at work that your colleague was able to attain outside of the work you do together.

  • Periodically asking how your colleague is doing at the start of your conversations. Asking a question like, "How is your week going?" can create some great conversation.

  • Offering to have lunch or coffee with your colleague.

  • Asking about how your colleague's family is doing (especially if your colleague has spoken about their family members before).

Some of the examples above are what creates a great work environment in general!

I hope these tips are helpful as you work to create more connection instead of conflict when differences arise!

As always, feel free to share this blog post with anyone who might benefit from it as well!


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