I’m a big believer in not burying the headline, so here’s the answer to the question in the title:
FALSE. Empathy does NOT equal agreement!
This question of empathizing vs. agreeing comes up again and again in with my coaching clients. Specifically, they’ll ask:
How can I show empathy for someone with whom I have a fundamental disagreement ? Isn’t that just me being insincere?
Well, it can be if you’re telling them that you agree with them when you really don’t, but you don’t have to say that. My advice on this question really comes down to word choice. If you want to empathize with someone you disagree with, then say exactly what you mean.
Here’s a garden variety workplace conflict scenario: You think someone on your team dropped the ball and didn’t do what they should, which caused some negative ripple effects for you and others. And let’s say the person is saying it’s not their fault because they don’t have a lot of experience and others should’ve been looking over their work. You have a fundamental disagreement. You blame them, and they blame others.
If you want to empathize with the person who you believe dropped the ball, you don’t (insincerely) say:
Yes, there should’ve been people looking over your work.
Instead, without judging or editorializing, you simply reflect back what you’re hearing:
It sounds like you feel that you were left alone and didn’t have the support you were expecting to have.
Do you see the difference? In one, you’re falsely agreeing; in the other, you’re acknowledging that you’ve heard their thoughts, feeling, or concerns. You’re not saying that you think they should’ve had more help or that they’re not responsible for the dropped ball. You’re just saying that you heard them without addressing the question of whether or not you agree.
OK, so that’s how you show empathy, but why would you want to show empathy in this case? After all, you think they’re wrong, and you feel strongly about it. Here’s why you should: If you’re a leader, you should be willing to go first.
People come to conflict with established positions, ready to defend themselves and strike back if necessary. Think of two boxers in a ring, both with their gloves up in a defensive stance. If you want to resolve conflict, you need to get the parties to drop their gloves, stop worrying about defending positions, and start moving toward addressing each other’s interests. Showing empathy is a proven way to get people to shift from positions to interests.
I acknowledge that it can be a vulnerable move to ‘drop your gloves’ and show some empathy to someone with whom you disagree. However, it should make you feel less vulnerable to realize you’re not giving away anything by simply acknowledging the other person’s statements. It’s just an opening move worthy of a leader who’s willing to resolve conflict and get results.
Guillermo Villar is principal coach with Cambio Coaching. He helps high-achieving individuals and teams communicate with intention to get the business results they want. If you’re interested in working with Guillermo, sign up for a free meeting to explore how he can help.