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The Journey to Empathy

In conflict resolution empathy is a central tool and way of being. And yet I remember that when I started in my first mediation course I was unsure of what it was. It even took a while to learn the difference between empathy and sympathy; (empathy being an intellectual and emotional awareness and understanding of another person’s thoughts and feelings; sympathy an actual sharing of another’s feelings especially in sorrow or trouble). In my search for a definition I encountered an old joke that I often now use to start a discussion on empathy.

There was a rich woman who wanted to have her portrait painted by a famous young artist. She called the artist to her mansion and instructed him that she would like her portrait to be painted with empathy. The young artist arranged for her sittings and commenced the work. He would not let her see the painting until it was completed as he rejected any artistic intervention. Finally the day came for the unveiling. The family gathered round. The artist pulled back the cover. And there was a gasp from the assembled group. The portrait was magnificent, however there was a man standing behind the rich woman with his hand over her shoulder and stuck down the front of her dress. The rich lady gasped, composed herself and said ’Young man, what is the meaning of this?’

The artist replied ‘Ma’am, I must confess that when you asked me to paint your portrait with empathy, I did not know what empathy was. So I looked it up in the dictionary and the definition said ‘A fellow feeling in one’s bosom’.

Indeed! A fellow feeling in one’s bosom is a fine definition of empathy if a little ambiguous.

Having come up with a definition I still then had a tremendous amount of difficulty learning how to actually achieve this ‘fellow feeling’. I would find myself at the mediation table with the parties whining at each other over some trivial matter (when compared to life, death and global warming) and I would be sitting there thinking ‘Get a life buddy. Stop whining’. At the same time I would be saying “ That must have been really difficult for you to go through that experience” “Yeah! So right dude” would be the reply as the party felt heard.

It is amazing how the mechanical tools of mediation work even without the feeling. I called it ‘mechanical empathy’. After each mediation I would write up a self evaluation and each time for several years I would comment to myself on my lack of empathy. After all if I had walked a mile in his shoes, maybe I would be whining just as much. (Or as the old joke goes, I would at least have his shoes and he would be a mile away). This was my burden (not a very heavy one, I give you), humour kept overcoming empathy. It may be a British thing, my heritage I thought. Crack a joke whenever an emotion looks like taking over.

My mediation mentor once told me that I had the emotional development of a 2 year old. When I recounted this to a group of women students they replied that they would have given me 12 years old and that’s about average for a guy!

So how to get from an EQ of a 2 year old to the ability to experience the real empathy that is the hallmark of a successful mediator and indeed a successful human being?

In a word ‘listen’. That’s really the whole story. Just listen. Shut up and listen. Keep your opinions to yourself and just listen. Gradually it becomes a habit. Gradually you even understand what you hear. Gradually as you really begin to hear, respect grows. This can be difficult at times especially if someone is shouting and using abusive language. However in the act of active listening the talker (or shouter) is calmed.

A few years ago during a mediation I experienced two parties transform from hissing in anger at each other to reconciliation in a moment. The trigger was an apology. Much has been written on the power of apology and it is indeed one of the most powerful forces for transformational good. The experience led me to look for other triggers that might cause transformation. Silence and humour and tears all have power.

This search led me to explore some of the links between mediation and human spirituality. I learned to meditate using the Vipassana tecnique. The ability of meditation to loosen the ego’s grip became a powerful tool to prepare myself for mediation sessions. The fact that a single letter separates meditation and mediation seemed somehow prophetic. I learned an ancient learnable skill called Metta Bhavana. This loosely translates as ‘Loving Kindness’ and is practiced by the conscious projection of good will.

One day as an unsuccessful mediation was winding up and I was preparing to send the parties out into the unresolved world with at least some encouragement about the good work that they had done in the mediation, I lent forward with good intent and focused body language and said ‘You know, I really feel for both of you. This conflict does harm equally and I feel bad that you have been unable to come to a resolution today. I do however believe that both of you made significant efforts to get to a solution and that you each understand better what motivates the other. And so as you leave please feel easy on yourselves and know that the work that you did here today was good work and may help you reach a solution soon’.

There was a silence. The energy between us all was real and intense. It was like a hug between warring relatives at a family funeral. Then they sat back down and quickly settled. I was amazed.

I tried the same kind of focused good will in other mediations and always found that it moved the parties forward. I continued my research into the roots and practice of the process. It turns out that the Magi who showed up at the birth of Jesus saying “Peace on Earth and good will to all” practiced this ancient skill of Metta Bhavana, the conscious projection of good will, compassion and loving kindness. The term ‘Pax Vobiscum’ in the Catholic liturgy is an expression of the practice.

It is a learnable skill and it involves 5 stages. The first stage is to think of yourself in a kind and loving way, this is then extended to a person that you like in the second stage. The third stage is to think of a neutral person and the fourth and perhaps most difficult stage is to project loving kindness (peace and good will) to an enemy or difficult person. The final stage is to expand the projection of good will to all. There are many courses in the process often associated with Buddhism. There are even do it yourself web sites with exercises to teach Metta Bhavana.

It was the success of the technique that made me feel that I should tell other practitioners about my experience. And so I sent an abstract for a workshop to a conflict resolution conference and presented the workshop. It was well received and so it is the same motivation that makes me write this article. I am beginning to believe that perhaps you need no other tools. If you can enter a space with absolutely zero judgement and project loving kindness the space will shift magically and to the benefit of those in it. Indeed the word ‘magic’ is derived from the Magi.

The abstract for the course was:

Magic in Mediation
Role playing and case study of the use and impact of the transformational techniques that can literally move the participants through the looking glass into places that they never thought possible. There are many definitions of the nature of magic but I return to the techniques used by the followers of Zoroaster, the Magi, who were able to turn events to advantage by the conscious use of well intentioned will power. Compassion and Loving Kindness (Metta Bhavana) are the central tools. While these tools are useful to practitioners they are of course also central to a successful life.

This article has grown out of this workshop presented at the Conflict Resolution Network conference ‘Cultivating Peace’ in Winnipeg, Canada in June 2006 by Martin Golder of Victoria, British Columbia.


Martin Golder

Martin Golder has been mediating since 1998. He is a member of the British Columbia Mediator Roster Society and a senior mediator and mentor in the Court Mediation Program. He is a graduate of the CLE programs in family law mediation, advanced civil mediation and multi party construction dispute mediation.… MORE >

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