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How to de-escalate conflict with empathy

  —  17/10/23

Knowing how to de-escalate conflict is a vital leadership skill.

Whether it’s defusing a heated meeting, dealing with personality clashes or differing opinions between staff, navigating competing priorities, or supporting your people through the stress of change, being able to reduce the heat of a situation will help both you and your team remain focussed and engaged.

Of the many tools available for de-escalating conflict, one reigns supreme for reducing tension quickly: empathy. Why? Because empathy builds trust and allows people to feel seen and heard – and everyone wants that.

What is empathy?

In simple terms, empathy is listening to someone else’s experience and believing them. You don’t have to have had that experience yourself, you don’t have to like or agree with their description of how they feel, but you do have to believe it is what the experience or feeling is for them.

Empathy is curiosity in action. It’s seeking to understand, not to respond. It’s putting yourself in another person’s shoes and seeing things from their perspective, even if you disagree.

Empathy is different to sympathy. Sympathy is feeling sorry for someone. Empathy is feeling with someone. It’s connecting to the emotions someone is experiencing, even if you can’t connect with the circumstances or the behaviour. You might think someone’s angry reaction to a relatively minor change is over the top but empathy allows you to consider a time when you have been angry, connect with what it feels like to be in that space, and then relate to the other person in a more considered way. Empathy is acknowledging, not dismissing another person’s feelings, and often beings with an “I” statement, such as: “I can see you’re upset.” “I appreciate this is frustrating.” “I want to acknowledge that some of you are really angry.”

Empathy as a tool for de-escalating conflict

Injecting empathy into a conversation is a simple and powerful way of defusing anger and frustration. It’s especially valuable when managing intense meetings or community forums. Rather than ignoring emotion, acknowledge and name it straight away and then pair this with some basic ground rules to hold people accountable for their behaviour.

Here’s an example:

“The purpose of this meeting is to discuss the current project status but before we do, I want to acknowledge that there’s a lot of feeling in the room. Some of you are angry, concerned and upset, and that’s ok. I’m here to hear about those concerns and hopefully allay them. But for us to be able to have this discussion what I ask of you is that we treat each other with respect. And what respect looks like to me is:

• If you’ve got a question please pop your hand up.
• There’s no need for us to yell or swear at each other, so let’s keep it polite.
• I want to hear from everyone in the room so if you ask a question, I’ll then go to anyone else in the room who wants to speak before coming back to you for another go.

“Again, I appreciate there are strong feelings in the room but that doesn’t mean we can’t have this conversation in a constructive and positive way.”

The power of acknowledgment

Acknowledging emotions up front like this has a remarkable impact: people visibly calm down. They don’t have to keep showing you they’re angry because you’ve acknowledged that they are. This encourages them to soften and engage in the conversation.

In contrast, some leaders “armour up” rather than empathise when conflict begins. It’s as if they’re going into battle and they double down on the facts while completely ignoring the emotion in the room. And here’s what happens: the anger rises. Because the leader hasn’t acknowledged people’s feelings, they feel the need to show it and things get out of control very fast. Someone yells out, “What’s the point?” Another follows up with, “This is rubbish!” And before long you’ve got multiple people shouting and heckling as the leader tries to keep things on track. The leader ends up playing a version of whack-a-mole, trying to tell people to calm down and behave, only to have another person escalate.

Whether in a one-on-one conversation or group setting, ignoring the feeling in the room doesn’t make it go away, it just makes it grow. When emotions are recognised, conflict de-escalates and people can engage in more productive discussions. Empathy is the secret sauce for handling challenging conversations respectfully and effectively.

Leah Mether is a communication and soft skills trainer obsessed with making the people part of leadership and work life easier.

With more than 15 years’ experience working with thousands of clients, and an acclaimed book to her name, Leah knows what it takes to communicate under pressure. Like you, she knows the challenge of conflict, personality clashes, and difficult conversations.

Leah is renowned for her practical, engaging, straight-shooting style. Utilising her Five Cs® model of communication, she helps leaders and teams shift from knowing to doing, and radically improve their effectiveness.

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