Empathy - the ability to genuinely understand what a situation is like from another person's perspective is a powerful tool for building relationships and de-escalating conflict and strong emotions.
When we understand what it is like to walk in someone's shoes, we gain insight into their drivers, filters and motivations. It can help us get a clearer sense of why they do something, or perceive a situation in a particular way.
Understanding an opposing viewpoint does not mean you have to like it, agree with it or support it. Disagreements can create a lot of hurt and angst. When we can understand the other viewpoint, it can help us feel better about the disagreement, as well as de-personalises it for us.
Here's a way you can practice learning to understand alternative, perhaps even uncomfortable, points of view.
- Find a quiet moment when you know you have some uninterrupted, quiet thinking/reflecting time.
- Write a list of 1 to 3 issues that you feel strongly about; or recent disagreements you have had with others.
- Take one issue at a time and practice really seeing the other point of view.
- What is is like being them?
- How is their situation different from mine?
- What could they be passionate about, and fearful of?
- What are their desires and pain?
- What beliefs do they hold about themselves, others, and the situation at hand?
- Watch your emotive response carefully as you run through all the reasons for that opposing viewpoint.
Your aim is to try and get to the point where you can truly get what the opposing viewpoint is – without feeling defensive, unsettled or defensive. Remember, just because you understand their viewpoint does not mean you are obligated to like it, agree with it, or support it.
You may well need to repeat this exercise many times. It is worth the effort as empathy is one of the most beneficial relationship (personal or business) building tools you can nurture.