Empathy and Accommodation
A long time ago I knew a smart, funny, and immensely curious seven-year old who could use the word “albeit” in a sentence, correctly, but couldn’t get by in school because of ADHD. At that time we knew little about that condition, so we made judgments about “bad behavior” instead. We were impatient, frustrated and annoyed with what we didn’t understand, and it is embarrassing now to think of how quick we were to judge and punish. Except for most of the parents and teachers of these children, we adults lacked empathy.
We often say that one of the most effective ways of working toward resolution is to ask people to demonstrate empathy, to understand the emotions and needs of others rather than judging them or their behaviors. We suggest that each person “walk in the other person’s shoes,” to try to feel what the other person feels and how that generates the needs the other person wants to meet. Sometimes we ask, “How would you feel if that happened to you?”
Accommodation is based on empathy, a willingness to understand how another person perceives and responds to the world. Without understanding another world view, we cannot make allowances for it, accommodate it, or resolve the conflicts generated by these competing world views.
All too often, we get stuck on judging when we can’t get to empathy because the attitudes or behaviors that may be part of the conflict challenge ideas of what we think are right or appropriate. Judging precludes empathy and blocks the path to resolution.
Luckily, empathy and accommodation are getting a lot more attention lately, and that attention is helping all of us develop ways of addressing, if not resolving, conflict.
Nicholas Kristof wrote two columns about empathy, the first about his friend, Kevin, who died at 54, in debt and ill-health after he lost a well-paid factory job and couldn’t find work in his rural environment. (http://www.nytimes.com/2015/01/25/opinion/sunday/nicholas-kristof-wheres-the-empathy.html?_r=0)
The second column summarized some of the responses that argued that Kevin was lazy and didn’t deserve help, a perspective that seemed to Kristof, and to me, to lack empathy. (http://www.nytimes.com/2015/01/29/opinion/nicholas-kristof-how-do-we-increase-empathy.html ) Growing vegetables, fishing for dinner, and collecting soda cans doesn’t seem lazy to me, especially if nothing else is available, and when both health issues and a lack of health insurance get in the way of doing much of anything.
Why is it difficult to demonstrate empathy? Part of the reason, I think, is that we criticize what we are afraid of – attitudes that challenge our beliefs, behaviors we are afraid we might adopt, expectations of other ways to live our lives, especially if those other behaviors sometimes seem successful. Especially in difficult economic times we believe that, unlike Kevin, no matter the circumstances, we could recover, so we blame those who are not able to recover for not being resilient. Besides, it’s easier to judge and dismiss than it is to take the time to understand and change an opinion.
Many studies show empathy is hard-wired into our consciousness, and can be nurtured and encouraged by getting people used to helping others. The young of many species with their big eyes and big heads are sympathetic so that parents are encouraged to care for them, hence the “aaahhhs” for puppies and kittens (and the use of children in advertising). Empathy can be encouraged early in our children with peer mediation programs, working vacations for teenagers, or travel that expands our ideas of what is right or wrong. They’ll start early on discovering the wonder of human difference and cultures.
The bad news: Without empathy or understanding there can be no accommodation, or accommodation may be tinged with contempt for people who get “special treatment.” In conflicts that involve difficult relationships and strong feelings, resolution might not be reached unless empathy and accommodation can be found.
The good news: Empathy can be learned, and once learned, people want to help. People accommodate phobias and allergies; they provide detailed instructions for driving somewhere new for people who have little sense of direction; we take elevators instead of escalators and get theater seats on levels that won’t trigger a fear of vast, open spaces.
And sometimes people do extraordinary things, just because they see a need and want to help. They volunteer to treat Ebola victims, or they invent new therapies, or pass new laws. Volunteers found a way of making inexpensive artificial hands for kids by printing them out on three-dimensional printers. The software is free, volunteers put the pieces together if necessary, and the kids have hands they are proud of since someone really smart thought to make them look like superhero hands and not “prosthetics.” And they cost as little as $20. (The New York Times, 2/17/2015, p. D1)
Where would these kids be without the empathy of others? Where would any of us be?
Search Related TMTs
“ . . . explore jointly what’s possible before stating unilaterally what’s impossible.”
“the complaint is more about someone’s style of interaction than about the content.”
“Good leaders build the road to the right destination before others realize that travel is required.”
Reasoning Resolves Conflict
“Critical Thinking” from Warner Results Coaching is one of the best publications available on the topic. It’s concise (fewer than 20 pages), completely accessible, inexpensive, very practical, and easy to apply. (Go to www.readytomanage.com/store and search critical thinking. Then check on the publication, not the case study.)
Thanks to other, more inaccessible texts, we have become wary of critical thinking and often consider it some very complex, arcane and negative process to be avoided, but Warner suggests that there are just three steps in critical thinking: discernment, analysis, and evaluation. And they are not that hard to use.
One of the best examples of critical thinking that I’ve seen in a while comes from a wonderful story by Mark Haddon called The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. Haddon writes about Christopher, a 15 year-old boy with autism, who decides to become a detective and solve the mystery of who killed his neighbor’s dog one night. Most of his neighbors and others in his small town know about his autism and are patient, but an impatient policeman gets aggressive when Christopher tries to explain what he is doing and hauls him off to jail.
To ensure that Christopher’s chances of being arrested again are reduced, Christopher’s father sets some very clear ground rules for detecting, which Christopher quotes and then thinks about carefully, as that is part of detecting (p. 56):
“And then I did some reasoning. I reasoned that Father had only made me do a promise about five things, which were
1. Not to mention Mr. Shears’s name in our house
2. Not to go asking Mrs. Shears about who killed that bloody dog
3. Not to go asking anyone about who killed that bloody dog
4. Not to go trespassing in other people’s gardens
5. To stop this ridiculous bloody detective game
“And asking about Mr. Shears wasn’t any of these things.”
So Christopher reasons that, if he can’t directly ask Mr. Shears questions, he can ask other people about Mr. Shears, and not break his promise to stick to the rules.
And that is critical thinking.
Detecting, is in fact, critical thinking, looking at pieces of information, testing their credibility and relevance, and deciding what to do with them. First, Christopher “discerns” or perceives that there are five rules, or promises, that must be followed. Then, he “analyses” these rules and “evaluates” them to understand to what specific situations or behaviors they apply. Once having analyzed the rules and discerning that they don’t apply to simply asking about Mr. Shears, he continues his detecting.
For Christopher, the world is understandable only when the rules or patterns are very clear. Ambiguity, or communication that is unclear or incomplete, is so confusing that it can stop him completely until someone clarifies the rule. For example, it is frustrating to him when he is told in school that he must be quiet but is not told for how long or in what circumstances. Quiet right now in this situation or for a different length of time in another situation? Specificity helps him navigate the world where such ambiguity would not confuse or disturb most other people. But then he is sometimes reprimanded for asking too many questions about what is expected, which confuses him even more. It feels unfair to be reprimanded for trying to clarify information so he can meet other people’s expectations when both the expectations and the information are incomplete. The miscommunications continue and the frustration rises, resulting in angry outbursts, or conflicts.
Unfortunately, it is the degree of specificity and the number of questions that need to be answered that create the conflict between Christopher’s good intentions and other people’s frustration levels. Neither party’s expectations are being met – Christopher’s, that the questions will be answered until he is satisfied, and other people’s that it shouldn’t take so many questions to figure out what “be quiet” means.
And that is how critical thinking applies to conflict resolution.
Under the stress of conflict we lose our capacity to reason carefully, jumping to conclusions, letting emotions get in the way of logic, making assumptions on the basis of too little and/or confusing information combined with fear about the outcome of the disagreement. Christopher would look for the process, the steps that can lead him out of the confusion, and finding three steps to analyze information is an example we can use as well.
Just for the record, I think both the book and the play are masterpieces of creativity, of an examination of how determination helps you to take risks and overcome obstacles especially when you are very afraid of them. By defining himself as a detective, Christopher adopted the thought processes of detecting, used them to overcome significant fears and limits, and yes, discovered who killed the dog in the night-time.