In our work with both conflict professionals and clients, we have stressed the importance of developing the skill of empathy, which we believe is critical to understanding and supporting them. To truly empathize requires us to use all of our intuitive emotional resources in order to step into the shoes of the parties, to identify with the experience of the other while remaining separate. It is a major challenge for all of us, particularly when we have negative reactions to another.
I have noticed both in myself and with other professionals that once we have made the great effort to understand the clients, we are inclined to believe that what we have imagined to be going on with the other is real. That is, we believe that the hypothesis of what we believe to be true with another is, in fact, true. Once we become attached to our idea of what is true, we become part of the problem. It is essential to check out what your imagination tells you with the person you are trying to empathize with. You can do this by saying, “I think I understand what you are saying and feeling, but I want to clarify it by reflecting back to you my understanding of your experience. Please correct me if I’m mistaken.”
We see a look from a client that appears to be an expression of anger and we assume that the client is angry. Maybe there is some anger there, but there may also be another emotion or set of emotions that are as powerful if not stronger than the anger. But because we see what feels like anger we decide that we are right. We might be, but we might not be, because we have used our imaginations and what we see in front of our eyes to draw a conclusion. That is not the reality, it is only our perceived reality, and instead of connecting to the client, we can be increasing the distance between us and the client.
We also can be increasing the gulf between the parties, particularly if the other agrees with what we see. They each act as if they are the expert on the other’s internal reality and proceed from there assuming they know the other’s truth. Each then has to defend themselves against the charges of what they feel is a misunderstanding of the other.
Humility is important in our effort to develop empathy. Becoming attached to our assumptions only hinders the process. Be willing to accept the client’s experience as primary. “I (we) have no window into another person’s soul.“