Musings on empathy

I am due to travel shortly to Israel and Palestine. No my mission isn’t to resolve the conflict there. It is for a small kid’s charity called ABCD Bethlehem. I wanted to digress a little and discuss empathy particularly in mediations. I was at a trustee meeting for a mediation charity last night and our CEO said that he had an offer he couldn’t resist from another charity rescuing animals and he showed us lots of cuddly pictures of animals, with commensurate responses from all my co-trustees. It is easy to be empathetic to what you see that’s nice and cuddly whether that is for animals or disabled children in a conflict zone; it is more difficult to be empathetic about people having difficult discussions within a mediation. Look at the website and you will see starchy lawyers and smartly dressed clients around the table – maybe they are shaking hands. Some websites go all natural with pictures of flowers, trees or rolling fields – maybe that is supposed to make us feel all cosy about conflict resolution. In reality conflict is bloody and a messy business.

chocs

So like the box of chocolates we tend to show the end result the handshake and the glow of contentment following the settlement over the stresses and strains of actually getting there. I have always thought that we are terribly lucky being mediators as we briefly enter into the very private lives of those in conflict; we exude confidence patience and empathy with a firm handle on controlling the process. Being empathetic means the ability to understand and share the feelings or experiences of others by putting yourself in their shoes. That rapport building with each party is one of the essential skills if not the essential skills that make mediation work. But I often ask myself where empathy ends and sympathy begins. We are told that being sympathetic to the views and opinions of one party is a cardinal sin – absolutely verboten! But like the cuddly animals in the picture it’s so easy for some of us to turn that impartial rapport into something akin to bias.

Suspending one own bias and stopping that internal evaluative tendency isn’t as easy as it seems. Getting inside the dispute into the eyes ears and minds of each party, and getting the message across that you do understand how they feel without going over the top isn’t as easily learn skill. If party A tells you privately that he absolutely cannot stand party B in the other room and gives you a very grisly story, your tendency is to gloss over the grisly bits and tell it differently in the other room – we called it reframing. Of course it is easier to let the parties lose in a joint meeting when they can expound their emotions at will. Tempering those emotions and extreme positions into digestible messages whilst acknowledging the strength of each parties’ feelings in an empathetic way is the balancing act we all have to achieve – and sometimes it is easier to be a referee in joint caucus than being the messenger twixt one room and the other.

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