The second element of effective Perspective Taking is the ability to convey empathy toward one’s conflict partner. Considering how emotional conflicts can be, this behavior is critically necessary and undeniably challenging. It requires the leader to not only get “into the shoes” of the other person, but more accurately, get “into the heart and soul” of the other person. And it requires the ability to put the need for acknowledgement of one’s own emotions on hold. We suggest that for empathy to be most effective, the feeling must not only be understood, but it must be accurately labeled. The accuracy, of course, is judged by the person who owns the feelings. During a conflict, this can be tricky business.
I (Tim) worked for about a year in mid town Manhattan. At the time, my children were quite young, 2 and 4 years old. We lived between Princeton and Trenton, New Jersey. Every morning I rose before 5 a.m., walked to the nearest bus stop to catch bus number one, which would take me to bus number two, which would take me to the train station in Trenton. From there, I boarded a train to the city and headed to my job as a consultant with a training and development firm. My wife, “Mac”, would rise at the same time as I, get herself ready for work and then get Lindsay and Kyle ready for nursery school. While I relaxed and read the paper on the train, she was making breakfast, dressing children, and fighting traffic all before getting to her job. After a long day at work, “Mac” would pick up the children, head home, do some chores, start dinner, and then load the kids back in the car to meet me at the train station so I wouldn’t have to catch buses home.
At the end of one particularly trying day for both of us, I disembarked at Trenton Station and began walking through the parking lot looking for our car. I believe it was raining. It was dark, dreary and I was pooped. I spotted our compact station wagon (this was before SUV’s and just on the cusp of the minivan rage) and trudged toward it in anticipation of a warm welcome by my family. I noticed the sounds of rock music coming from inside the car as I approached. Then I saw Lindsay and Kyle jumping up and down on the rear seat, to the beat of the music. Lindsay was holding her “My First Sony” tape player in one hand and Kyle’s hair in the other. She was loudly counting repetitions of jumping jacks while Kyle was shouting and playing with a toy dumbbell. My children were gloriously involved in doing a workout to the tunes of a rock song with a throbbing base line in the back seat of our car! I opened the door to the delighted squeals of my kids and tossed in my briefcase. I glanced to the front seat and noticed “Mac” sitting behind the steering wheel with her head resting on the driver’s side window. I crawled into front passenger seat, mustered a smile, and said, “Hello honey.” Mac looked at me with weary eyes and said, “Hi dear. What a day I’ve had.”
Now this is one of those defining moments in the lives of husbands and wives. For the record, this was not a conflict situation (yet). We were just two tired souls longing for the comfort of some peace and quiet and the end of a long day. “Mac” had just indicated that she had had a trying day, “What a day I’ve had.” In my consulting job, I conducted training classes in which we focused on interpersonal skills. One of the many interpersonal skills addressed was empathy. I was an expert, or so I thought. And at this defining moment I responded with all good intentions, “I know exactly how you feel, honey.”
Without getting into specifics, suffice it to say that my response missed the mark of empathy by, oh say, 30 or 40 light years. How could I have possibly known exactly how “Mac” felt. I had been in New York City all day. Meanwhile her day included: deadline issues at her job in Princeton, managing children on sugar highs from cake and ice cream at a school birthday party, dodging idiot drivers encountered on the way to the train station, enduring an extra 20 minutes waiting on my late train, and suffering with a pounding headache. “I know exactly how you feel, honey,” was not exactly what she needed to hear. And it most certainly didn’t convey any sense of empathy, even though I really meant well.
An empathetic response with a bit of Perspective Taking in this situation might have been something like, “Gee honey, it sounds like you’ve had an incredibly tough day. Want to tell me about it?” The key factor is labeling the suspected feeling, in this case “tough.” For all I know, “tough” might not have been descriptive enough for “Mac’s” situation. She may have said, “Tough doesn’t begin to describe the day I’ve had. I’m wasted.” Even so, I would have been in the right ball park. The distance between tough and wasted is reasonable and more importantly, I would have communicated that I understood what she may be feeling. My statement that, “I know exactly how you feel,” communicated only that I was completely out of touch with her and interested more in comparing how I felt to how she felt. Not a smart move. And absolutely not an example of empathy!
The essence of Perspective Taking is demonstrating understanding. In conflict, when one conveys an understanding of another’s point of view or feelings, it begins to loosen the jam of opposing positions. It quite literally shows a respect for the other’s comprehension of a situation or response to it. When we are asked to work with those who are in conflict, we coach them to focus on Perspective Taking to the satisfaction of their opponent. In other words, the goal of Perspective Taking becomes the conveyance of the conflict partner’s position or emotions so well that the parties are convinced that there is a shared understanding. When this occurs, the chance that the conflict can result in a constructive outcome, though not assured, is extraordinarily improved.