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How to Use Shared Values and Empathy to Defuse Conflict

Last week’s post on workplace conflict looked at the impact of personal differences and style as well as the roles that different individuals might take in instigating or sustaining a conflict. The next step in bringing people closer together is to look for what the antagonists have in common and find the relevant purpose that they share.

Too often, workplace conflict results in a binary outcome or a zero-sum game: There’s one winner and everyone with a divergent viewpoint loses. But you can aim for an alternate result: one that benefits the greatest number of people or creates the greatest good, while no one suffers unnecessarily.

The goal is to have and to express differences of opinion, even extreme differences of opinion, and still come out whole at the end — even if the eventual resolution does not go your way.

Is There a “Greater Good” in the Situation?

Both sides (perhaps I should say all sides) need to have reconciliation as a goal, not just their own best interests. The participants need to realize that reconciliation is in their own best interests. Once that commitment is present, specific aspects of communication can come into play.

It’s usually possible to identify a common purpose even if you don’t yet have any clue about how to reach it together. Just look for the values and ideals the participants share as part of their mutual affiliation with the organization.

Sometimes they hold in common a set of values that are relevant to the organization’s mission or vision. For example, the overarching desire to ensure a seamless customer experience can serve as a launching pad for figuring out how we wish to treat each other: If we don’t collaborate well internally, the customer may be ill-served. Similarly, the organization may have a declared value about being a superior place to work.

Creating a Basis for Communication

It’s important to remember that the people you disagree with are not you and don’t feel the way you do. If that’s too hard to adopt as your operating premise, just try being intentionally curious, and wonder why a reasonably decent and intelligent person would want or be thinking something that seems so contrary to you.

Logic dictates that if the people you’re in conflict with are not evil or wholly stupid, they must have a good reason to think the way they do — or at least, what looks like a good reason to them — so it’s your job to try to find out what that good reason is.

Because you and they are not the same, your intuition may not be enough. You may need to ask directly what’s going on: “I’m sorry, I’m probably not seeing this from your point of view. Could you please explain more about why that issue is so important to you?”

Listen for specific requests, fears, desires — not just for people positioning themselves in absolute terms (“because that’s the kind of person I am”).

Practice empathy for your opponents and their points of view:

“I may not want what you want, but I can see why you want it.”

“I may not want what you want, but I hope there’s a way you can get it (without my losing anything/even if I have to lose something).”

This combination of curious listening and empathetic speech helps reduce the negative, damaging atmosphere that conflict can foster. Respectful communication, no matter how tentative, creates an opportunity for building or rebuilding a more positive sense of relationship and a bit of optimism about continuing the dialogue. Next week, we’ll work on a stronger footing for potential cooperation.

Onward and upward,


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