WHAT MATTERS MORE: EMPATHY VS. SYMPATHY?

{3:30 minutes to read} I believe in understanding. So much so, that I work and teach in the “Understanding-Based Model” of conflict resolution. The basic concept of the Understanding-Based Model is that before we can effectively seek resolution of a conflict, we seek to better understand the problem and both parties, and their point of view.

We want to understand as fully as possible:

  • What’s underneath the problem
  • Each person’s reasons for taking their chosen stance
  • The facts of the situation

Working this way we go underneath the problem and first try to understand each person, while exploring how each person sees the situation. We give each individual the support they need to better understand themselves, their conflict and the other person. We do this before we ever begin to try to solve the problem.

Why? Because as human beings, we have a tendency to leap to conclusions. We get caught in a trap of conflict that holds us in its grasp; and it can only be loosened by understanding and curiosity.

In order to do that, as the professional(s) in the room, we must approach both people with an empathetic, not a sympathetic, stance.

  • Sympathetic: “Oh yeah, that is really painful for you.”
  • Empathetic: “I’ve been there, too.”

Maybe I haven’t experienced the exact situation, but I’ve had a situation; I’ve had conflict with someone in my life whom I love, or been in a situation I felt had to get out of, even if it was going to hurt someone I love. Being empathetic allows us to feel the pain without crossing over the boundary of taking on the problem for the other person.

Allow each person to be where they are. Give them the opportunity to explore why they feel the way they do, and to go as deep as they want to. I’m not saying, “Lie down on the couch and tell me about your childhood.” Maybe that approach is what the person needs to recognize why they feel the way they do.

The ability as lawyers and mediators to let an individual find that place, and to really feel where they are, without trying to move them somewhere else, matters in terms of a person’s ability to better understand themselves and the other person’s view; and to then ultimately start to move through the problem in a way that feels evolutionary rather than compromising.

As lawyers and mediators, we have the ability to let an individual find that place, and to really feel where they are without trying to move them somewhere else. This matters — it’s important to give someone the opportunity to better understand themselves and the other person’s view.

Once that is achieved, then we can help them start to move through the problem in a way that feels evolutionary, rather than compromising.

As mental health professionals, what methods do you employ for getting to the heart of the matter?

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