Empathy as a Tool for Dealing with a Person Who is Causing you Conflict

Empathy as a Tool for Dealing with a Person Who is Causing you Conflict

Have you ever used empathy at work with a person who was abrasive or abusive to help resolve the situation? If so you are not alone.

In this Wall Street Journal article, written in 2009 but as timely today as it was then, reviews two strategies for dealing with someone who was being aggressive and hurtful at work. Both strategies involve empathy — the ability to see things from another person’s perspective.

The author posits two strategies, and neither involves direct confrontation about the abusive behavior or its consequences to anyone.

Empathy Strategy #1: Ask: make an inquiry about the relationship

In this article it’s simple: ask “how can we work better together?” So simple. It is a good question under any circumstances, but an excellent strategy with someone whose bullying behavior comes from fear and confusion rather than a commitment to harming others. In fact, in this case the problem wasn’t bullying at all, but abrasive behavior. The person manifesting the behavior had a certain degree of empathy, so asking a question based on seeing things from another point of view worked beautifully. Classic bullies, that is, those people who enjoy making other people uncomfortable, don’t seem to have empathy. Their motivation isn’t to get work done, it’s to hurt others. Classic bullying is only a small percentage of cases that are being labeled workplace bullying, but that’s another story.

Empathy Strategy #2: Take a different point of view

Trying to understand what is motivating the aggressive person by looking at the world through their eyes can be very helpful. You can learn what you can do to help, even without asking. In this article, the boss was under a great deal of pressure to meet deadlines and he wasn’t a particularly good supervisor. Those two components worked together to make him seem like a bully. But really, he only needed understanding and an assertive assistant who could figure out what would help the boss feel more secure.

Empathy Strategy #3: Empathy doesn’t always work

Please understand these strategies do not always work. Some people are deeply committed to using dominant aggressive strategies or classic bullying to get their way. They believe that this aggressive behavior works and is necessary to get things done. It’s very difficult to manage the aggressor’s behavior or make peace with them. Therefore, it’s imperative to know what type of bullying behavior you’re dealing with.

I’m Kathleen Bartle, a strategic consultant on workplace conflict to executives worldwide for more than 20 years. My work brings individualized solutions to your teams’ lost productivity, loss of key personnel, low morale, and the high costs resulting from bullying, abrasive behaviors and interpersonal workplace conflicts. You can contact me here.