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Overcoming an “Empathy Deficit” in Conflict

The stress of conflict has ramifications we’re only just beginning to understand: We can apparently “catch” someone else’s stress physiologically. Acute stress can desensitize us to another’s pain. And stress from the presence of a stranger may reduce the ability to empathize. But 15 minutes of shared experience might just help.

Many years ago, I chaperoned a group of college leaders on an alternative spring break to work in a Washington, D.C. soup kitchen. A few of the students bickered constantly during the trip. A few more had monumental verbal contretemps at one point. But there was one time no one bickered or argued: When they were working the line in the soup kitchen.

I found myself musing about those students a decade later, as I built a 40-foot long, 3-foot high, 3-foot deep dry stone retaining wall on our property. “Dry” means without mortar, using only the structural integrity of the wall to keep it standing. It took about four ton of those rounded granite stones we’re “blessed” with in New England, most of which I collected off our forest floor where they’d been scattered eons ago by retreating glaciers.

I had a lot of time to think over the weeks it took to collect those stones and build the wall. There was one fantasy I found myself returning to repeatedly:

I wondered what would happen if I could put my mediation clients to work with me, moving stone, choosing stone, laying stone, as we talked. Would it influence the way their conflict played out? Would it shape the way the mediation unfolded? Would it change the way they engaged each other? I’ve always believed that it would.

These questions go to more than soothing an aching back. If acute psychosocial stress — not dissimilar from the stress of some conflict — can impair our ability to empathize with the other person, resolving the conflict becomes that much more difficult. If we can “catch” another’s stress and carry it in our own bodies, how do we prevent this kind of emotional contagion from further deteriorating the conflict situation?

How, in other words, do we increase empathy during conflict and battle the stress that eats away at it? A 2015 study offers some tantalizing evidence that my stone wall building and mediation notion might be worth more than mere fantasy.

Researchers from McGill University, Haverford College, Stanford University, and University of North Texas found that the stress of a forced social interaction between strangers diminishes the capacity to empathize with the other when pain was inflicted on them. But 15 minutes of playing the game Rock Band® reversed that, restoring their empathy.

Noted one of the researchers,

It turns out that even a shared experience (emphasis mine) that is as superficial as playing a video game together can move people from the “stranger zone” to the “friend zone” and generate meaningful levels of empathy. This research demonstrates that basic strategies to reduce social stress could start to move us from an empathy deficit to a surplus.

…These findings raise many fascinating questions because we know failures in empathy are central to various psychological disorders and even social conflicts at both the personal and societal level.

Jeffrey Mogil

So this study leaves us with intriguing questions: When we’re helping others resolve conflict, how can we tap the power of shared experience to achieve better results? Can we create shared experiences that can increase empathy without exacerbating the tension? And when we’re in the midst of our own conflicts, does our pulling away from the other person cause us to miss out on the promise of shared experiences?


Tammy Lenski

Dr. Tammy Lenski helps individuals, pairs, teams, and audiences navigate disagreement better, address friction, and build alignment. Her current work centers on creating the conditions for robust collaboration and sound decisions while fostering resilient personal and professional relationships. Her conflict resolution podcast and blog, Disagree Better, are available at… MORE >

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