Making happy minds: empathy + agency

Happy World Mental Health Day 2016!

If you’ve ever been to school, to work or had friends or family, you’ll know the feeling of being overwhelmed by a personal relationship that’s not going so well. Unmanaged conflict can sometimes tip the balance and lead to sadness, isolation, stress, sleeplessness, fear, aggression, anxiety or depression.

Here’s a 2-ingredient recipe for growing resilience in the face of interpersonal conflict. It is the result of a conversation I had with a friend of mine, a mother of three, whose parenting skills I admire greatly. As we sat in the late afternoon sun watching her three young ones invent games and negotiate disputes with a bunch of other kids, she asked me “So, how do you actually build resilience in people?”. Here’s what we came up with: RESILIENCE = EMPATHY + AGENCY

Step 1: Empathy – Can I understand and speak from all viewpoints?

Empathy grows from a seed of interest in the complexity of the situation, rather than its simplicity. You’ll notice that in situations of conflict, we are usually sure about the simplicity of what’s going on: he or she is a jerk, and what ever happened is typical.

To grow empathy, start with your own point of view, thoughts, feelings and actions, all the complex detail of your own experience. Next, apply the same process to the complex thoughts, feelings and actions of others involved in the conflict, stand in their shoes and narrate the situation from their view. This will take some willingness to imagine their experience and validate it as if it were your own.

Now join all the points of view together. Before long you’ll find that a complex picture of reality emerges, a picture that differs from the original, more simplistic view of the situation. This is the whole story. This step is complete when we can honestly talk on behalf of another so well that they would feel validated and understood.

Step 2: Agency – How can I influence the outcome for myself and others?

By being able to speak on behalf of those involved in our conflict means we can begin to identify the underlying needs of each person. We can see these underlying needs as the root of the difficulty, which may or may not be visible to the players in the conflict. Ask yourself: “What would I like to feel in this situation? What would I like to understand about what happened? What do I need to be sure about now?”

Once explicit, our needs can be something we take responsibility for, rather than expecting someone else to meet our needs, and being frustrated or upset when they don’t! Once you’ve had a look at your mixture of needs, ask yourself “What can I do to get this for myself?”.

Now apply this same process for others in the conflict: “What would they like to feel in this situation? What would they like to understand about what happened? What do they need to be sure about now?”.

Lastly, consider seeking the support of others outside the conflict to get all parties’ needs met: “Who else may be able to help me get what we both need? How could they help? How can I get them on board?”.

Once we understand the pickle we are in from all sides, and we are taking positive steps to meet our own needs and the needs of others, the situation will begin to feel like something you are managing with support, regardless of how complex it is.

I’m keen to hear your thoughts on this. Leave a comment.

Contact me to get support in resolving conflict.

By | 2017-05-22T08:43:21+08:00 October 10th, 2016|Categories: Conflict Resolution, Difficult Conversations, Resilience|0 Comments

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