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Last Updated: 05/16/2012The Power of Empathy in Conflict Resolution
Empathy has a profound ability to transform the way in which we resolve and understand conflicts. Empathy enables individuals to open their hearts and minds to not only see and understand the world from the perspective of others, but also to act in a way that is more likely to lead to a peaceful solution. In order to better understand empathy and its impact on conflict resolution, this paper will first address conflict, then empathy, how the two relate to one another, and finally, the essential nature of empathy in conflict resolution.
Empathy shapes the individual and, in many ways, has the power to shape and transform societies as well. With empathy, individuals have the ability to humanize each other and bring greater understanding to any situation, including those of conflict. This paper discusses research on conflict resolution and the impact of empathy education that confirms the transformative abilities of empathy, and considers the practical examples of Ashoka’s Changemakers and Roots of Empathy in order to demonstrate the impact of empathy and its imperative qualities for resolving conflicts.
“Conflict is likely to be experienced whenever ideas, activities, structures and people change in relation to each other. Since change is not only inevitable but also often desirable, conflict is unavoidable as well” (Francis, 2004, p. 4).
Conflict does exist and therefore, so too, should conflict resolution. However, conflict resolution is near meaningless unless it is done in an effective and agreeable form. Examples of conflict resolution methods include mediation, dialogue, and facilitated discussion. In each of these examples, there are typically opposing parties, with differing views and often a failure to understand the opinions of the other, at least initially.
As potential mediators, Paffenholz suggests that we first attempt to understand the conflict: “Before practitioners attempt to develop conflict transformation/intervention strategies, they would be well advised to take a closer look at the underlying vision supporting the stated wishes and needs to intervene” (Paffenholz, p.3, 2004).
One method for understanding a conflict is through conflict mapping. Conflict mapping can help analyze the situation by considering the following: conflict history, conflict context, conflict parties, conflict issues and conflict dynamics or a shorthand version which visualizes qualitative actors and their relationship with one another (Paffenholz, 2004). Similarly, at the individual level, one can understand the viewpoints of conflicting parties by identity mapping, an exercise of placing ones values, personal traits or characteristics of ‘who they are’ on a map. This helps the individual understand what is changeable and what is not. In a conflict setting, it can also be helpful for individuals to clarify their own point of view as well as the ‘others’ point of view and identity.
In knowing that conflicts should be understood before resolved and that individuals should understand their own point of view and ‘who they are’ as well as the ‘others’ in order for conflict resolution to be effective, we can already begin to see the importance of empathy to the conflict resolution process.
“Today a new generation of psychologists, developmental biologists, cognitive scientists, and pediatric researchers are probing deeply into the complex pathways of human development and pinpointing the critical role that empathetic expression plays in making us into fully formed human beings” (Rifkin, p. 105, 2009).
As we view empathy from various perspectives, it is important to understand that its meaning has an effect on the whole person and therefore various fields have researched the topic to understand its impact on individuals and groups. As touched upon earlier, empathy plays a critical role in conflict resolution, but it also impacts other areas of our lives, which indirectly impact conflict resolution such as understanding emotional literacies, compassion, valuing relationships, and other social and cognitive skills.
Mary Gordon, founder of Roots of Empathy defines empathy in an action-oriented sense, as the ability to identify with the feelings, perspectives of others and to respond appropriately to the feelings (Gordon, 2007). Empathy is commonly described as the ability to ‘walk a mile in someone else’s shoes’ or ‘see things from another perspective’, but Gordon adds an additional component, the idea of an appropriate response or action as part of an ability to identify or understand another’s position.
“Without empathy, we can’t get to conflict resolution, altruism, or peace” (Gordon, preface, 2007).
In order to find a solution to any problem, to resolve any conflict, one must have empathy, one must seek an understanding of the ‘others’ perspective and be compelled to act. The solution should be a resolution, a win-win situation, and peace. All parties are, generally speaking, looking for a positive outcome and therefore it is with empathy that this can be achieved.
Lampe speaks about Gilligan’s In a Different Voice which presents interviews examining gender and ethics via the responses of two eleven-year-old children. Jake’s responses represent a “masculinist” approach or “justice perspective” to handling conflict. Amy’s answers are characteristic of a “feminist” approach or “caring perspective” (Lampe, 2001, p.166). . Lampe concludes that “a ‘different voice’ reframes dispute resolution from an adversarial battle to an imperative that the parties find a solution through effective communication that preserves relationship by considering the position and needs of everyone affected” (p. 168, 2001).
By considering the positions of all, or empathizing with on another, a solution is achieved. This is not done alone, the method and communication play key roles; however, if the parties are able to empathize with one another, they are better able to move toward an understanding of peace.
Conflict Resolution Needs Empathy
Menkel-Meadow speaks about the theory of “process pluralism”, which she describes as “paying attention to a variety of different systematic values (some of which may seem oppositional to each other) and party needs at the same time, and offering variegated possibilities of process for engagement and decision making.” She goes on to explain that these values “include the attempt to achieve peace with justice, choice and self-determination of the individual with care and responsibility for others, and the recognition of processes” (p. 554, 2006). Menkel-Meadow’s theory holds that one should move from “hearing” the other side to “understanding” the other side, which is “a deeper level of human engagement and empathy, as well as reason”. In her work, she demonstrates the power of empathy and its essential need in conflict resolution as we “engage” with other human beings. “Modern science and legal life needs to get beyond the binary, adversarial idea that there are only two sides to an argument or the ‘truth’”, she adds. (p. 554, 2006). Therefore, empathy is necessary not only for emotional literacy at a personal level, but to be able to understand, feel, engage and act when in situations of conflict with others.
In practice, two examples bring empathy and its transformative power to light, the work of Ashoka Changemakers and Roots of Empathy. Ashoka Changemakers, an organization that supports innovative ideas to create a better world, has opened the Activating Empathy competition, noting that “By launching an online collaborative competition, Activating Empathy: Transforming Schools to Teach What Matters, we’re challenging teachers, principals, parents, students, and other innovators to share ideas—whether by a project, a program, or a new learning experience—for advancing empathy in education” (Ashoka).
Another example is the Roots of Empathy program, with a mission build caring, peaceful, and civil societies through the development of empathy in children and adults (Roots of Empathy). One Roots of Empathy participating teacher states, “after a year of exposure to the program, I am amazed at their collective abilities to engage in critical thinking tasks. They are keen problem-solvers, in small and large group settings. Individually, they are able to make independent decisions, no small achievement for six-year-olds! I have absolutely no bullying in my classroom, a feat I attribute solely to the program. In fact, my students have become self-appointed ‘peacemakers’ on the playground, often bringing students from other grades and classes to our classroom to ‘solve the problem by taking it over’” (Gordon, p. 43, 2007). In both programs the goal is to bring about change and peace, by means of empathy.
“Empathy is more than just awareness and concern. It is about cultural sensitivity and conflict resolution. It’s about the ability to communicate effectively and understand the motivations of others. Empathy is about standing up, not standing by, uncovering what’s below the surface through active listening and putting words into action” (Ashoka Changemakers).
By educating for an understanding of empathy, a culture of changemakers and peacemakers will open the doors of a world where conflict resolution is done with empathy, understanding, and by appropriate measures, as the perspectives of the ‘other’ will be considered. Through empathy more effective conflict resolution will be possible.
Activating Empathy: Transforming Schools To Teach What Matters | Changemakers. (n.d.). Changemakers | Changemakers. Retrieved March 22, 2012, from http://www.changemakers.com/empathy
Francis, D. (2004). Culture, Power Asymmetries and Gender in Conflict Transformation. Berghof Research Center, 2, 1-15.
Gilligan, C. (1993). In a Different Voice. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA.
Gordon, M. (2007). Roots of empathy: changing the world, child by child. Toronto: T. Allen Publishers.
Lampe, M. (2001). Mediation as an ethical adjunct of stakeholder theory. Journal of Business Ethics, 31(2), 165.
Menkel-Meadow, C. (2006). Peace and Justice: Notes on the Evolution and Purpose of Legal Processes. Georgetown Law Journal, 94(2), 663, 28pgs.
Paffenholz, T. (2004). Designing Transformative and Intervention Processes. Research Center for Constructive Conflict Management, 1, 1-16.
Rifkin, J. (2009). The empathic civilization: the race to global consciousness in a world in crisis. New York: J.P. Tarcher/Penguin.
Roots of Empathy. (n.d.). Roots of Empathy. Retrieved March 22, 2012, from http://www.rootsofempathy.org/
Anna Titulaer is an international development professional completing her Masters in Peace Education with a background in education, advocacy, training, facilitation and research. Ms. Titulaer is knowledgeable in project administration, systems, and procedures. Additionally, she has experience with program coordination, event planning and event execution. Having worked with various organizations she has acquired an understanding of contracts, procurement and grants administered and in compliance with US government regulations. Ms. Titulaer has provided project support with responsibilities in contracts, procurements, recruitment and human resources departments. Her geographic experience ranges from East Africa to West Africa, Afghanistan to Pakistan and Central America.