Carol Bowser: How to use curiosity and empathy during conflict

Navigating Conflict with Curiosity and Empathy: Key Strategies for Effective Communication

Working Relationships
Written by Carol Bowser

I’m really excited today because I want to talk to you about something that I believe holds significant importance: curiosity, empathy, and conflict. It’s interesting to explore how curiosity and empathy can help us navigate conflicts. When people find themselves in conflict, their capacity for empathy tends to diminish. It’s almost like there’s an inverse relationship between high conflict and low empathy. Have you ever noticed that? Think about the last time you were in a conflict where you felt like you were at your wit’s end, thinking, “I can’t believe they did that!” or “Did they really just say that?” In those moments, it seems that any empathy or curiosity you may have had for the other person simply disappears.

Without empathy, it becomes challenging to create an environment for collaboration. Our stress response kicks in, and we start emotionally shutting down. Our focus becomes entirely self-centered, causing curiosity to dwindle. In such a state, we tend to think only about ourselves and have little desire to reach out to the other person.

So, what can we do about it? Perhaps one way to increase empathy is to enhance our curiosity. One approach is to take a deep breath and reflect on how we’re feeling about the situation. Then, we can ask the other person, “Tell me more.” Although it might be difficult to hear their perspective, the act of encouraging them to share can be enlightening. In the process, consider an underlying question: “How could a decent rational person arrive at this viewpoint?” Now, I don’t suggest asking someone this directly, but it helps to understand that, in their world and based on their experiences, their response might be appropriate. While it may not align with your own worldview, taking a moment to ask curiosity-based questions like “tell me more” or “is there something I’m missing about this?” can make a difference.

If you take a deep breath and recognize when your curiosity and empathy are diminishing, chances are the other person’s curiosity and empathy are also waning. By asking curiosity-driven questions and seeking to understand where they’re coming from, you can help restore some balance and reduce the intensity of the conflict. I encourage you to give it a try. And if you’re up for it, let me know how it goes.

Curiosity and empathy are invaluable tools in resolving conflicts. By nurturing these qualities within ourselves, we can foster a more understanding and collaborative atmosphere, even in the midst of disagreement.