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As the New Year starts and I am enjoying Roman Kzarnik’s excellent new book on Empathy: How to Get it and Why it Matters, I am reminded again of the central place that this skill has in negotiation. After fifteen years of conflict resolution work, I can testify that there is no element as potent and as likely to lead to conflict escalation than the feeling of not being understood. Conversely, there are few emotions as wonderful in human relations as the receipt of genuine (nonmanipulative) empathy from the other side.

A few thoughts from my own work on empathy over the years:

Empathy is trainable. The good news is that even seemingly unfeeling and hard-line negotiators can be trained in empathy, if only to advance their own self-interest. Philosophers and therapists have given us many useful tools for this, drawing from the wisdom of mindfulness and awareness techniques and I add some tools from improvisational theater to spice up the mix. It is all about heightening awareness, picking up verbal and nonverbal signals from the Other and imagining what they may be thinking or feeling.

Don’t confuse empathy with sympathy. Empathy is a powerful tool but also a dangerous one. Especially for those of us who do not like conflict, feeling someone’s pain can quickly turn into doing anything to alleviate their pain. When we find ourselves making concessions in order to buy harmony, empathy has gone too far. And as the Harvard people remind us, you can never buy harmony with concessions. Always separate relationship from content.

Don’t forget the “as if”. The key to guarding against this danger is to always maintain the awareness that, although we have learned to deeply understand and experience what the other is thinking and feeling, we still know that all the while we have our own very separate identity. We can imagine what it is like to be them, “as if” we were them, while maintaining full awareness that we are not. This perhaps goes a step beyond what the academics call “perspective taking” but stops short of going over wholesale to the other side. We remain in control of the process.

Do you see (and feel) what I mean?

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