Dealing with Conflict: The Power of Empathy

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Although romantic relationships often start out blissfully and are characterized by long walks (if not on a beach, then some other romantic setting), sharing feelings, and displays of physical affection; it’s only a matter of time until that first fight occurs. Maybe John wants to watch the football game tonight, but Jane wants to see who gets kicked off Dancing with the Stars this week. Whether it’s big, little, or something in between, experiencing conflict is very normal—even healthy!—in relationships. Each person has his or her own conflict style. He might prefer to deal with conflict by taking time out to think, while she likes to talk things out in the moment rather than letting it go unresolved. Research indicates that there is no one right way to resolve conflict, but there are certain skills and strategies that anyone can use to improve their ability to work through fights with a partner.

As a therapist in training, one of the strategies I use with clients to help them resolve long-standing conflicts or issues is empathy. Empathy is the ability to recognize and share in another person’s emotions and experience; or as it’s often said, “put yourself in someone else’s shoes.” It’s very common to feel like you just don’t understand your partner during fights; however, the other person’s behavior is perfectly reasonable and justifiable  – to him or her. If you don’t understand why, it’s important to find out. It’s as simple as (sincerely) saying, “I’m not sure I understand where you’re coming from on this, but I want to.”

When confronted with a situation where you and your partner disagree, it’s easy to immediately take a defensive position. Why shouldn’t John watch the football game—he’s been looking forward to it all week because his favorite team is playing the biggest game of this season. How could she be so insensitive to make the comment that it’s “just a game”—especially when he turned down watching it with the guys so that they could still spend time together?! It’s obvious she just wants everything to be her way. Meanwhile, Jane’s wondering how he could care so much about football when she has never missed an episode of her favorite show, and has been wanting him to watch it with her ever since they started dating. She now knows that he doesn’t care about the things she’s interested in; he’d probably rather be hanging out with the guys!

Each person becomes enraged at their partner’s perceived offenses and begins to list all of the reasons why he or she is being wronged, even assigning traits to their partner’s character. However, neither one is using empathy in this situation. Underneath the anger in conflict is often an underlying emotion, such as fear or hurt. The key to empathy during disagreement is recognizing the underlying emotion your partner is experiencing and understanding why he or she feels that way. John and Jane are both feeling hurt, even though they are expressing anger. Their motives are actually to get closer to each other by sharing something that is important to them. Uncovering these underlying emotions and using empathy during conflict is a valuable tool that will resolve disagreements a little less painfully, and will likely make the relationship even stronger.

In conclusion, it might still be a challenge to decide what to watch on t.v., but it will be much easier to work it out when both partners understand where the other person is coming from, and both are able to respect and empathize with the partner’s position. Being in a relationship is like going down a road together, and putting yourself in your partner’s shoes will allow you to get a lot more out of the journey.

Kristy Malone, MFT Student

Graduate Research Assistant, Alabama Community Healthy Marriage Initiative

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