Can We Empathize During Conflict?

If you identify as an empath, then empathy is probably the way in which you relate to the world—the thing you ‘lead’ with. But I realized something interesting recently, after a big fight with my husband, about empaths and conflict: during conflict, which is an inherent part of all human relationships, I cant see to empathize. 

Now, this might make sense to you, like ‘duh!’ of course, it’s not ‘safe’ to empathize in conflict and sometimes this is true, but most the time it isn’t.

Here’s how it went: my husband and I were at home, and what started as a civil back and forth argument in the dining room, turned into a full-blown fight in the living room, which undoubtedly made for juicy listening for the neighbors. We both stood firmly and stubbornly on our ground, without compromise. I thought he was wrong, he thought I was wrong, we both wanted our needs met and were not giving it to the other.

After about fifteen minutes, I realized the fight was not moving towards being resolved, so we decided to take some space and I jumped in the car and drove to our local cafe to think. Now, usually in this instances, I get caught up in a negative, blaming loop about how wrong he is and how right I am, and I erect a big black insurmountable emotional wall where my empathic capacity for him becomes out of reach and it takes us two weeks to get over it.

But this time around as I started to do that, I felt like a bit of a cop-out. If I defined myself as an empath, it had me start to question, why couldn’t I remain connected to my empathy in conflict?

How empathetic was I really if I was only supposed to empathize with people who didn’t hurt my feelings? 

The Limits of Empathy

I believe a truly empathic person will be able to access empathy for every human in every moment; this is not to say we’ll choose empathy in how we decide to relate to them, but it is to say there should be no big black walls stopping us from empathizing in the first place.

What I realized was the wall I erect is my ego telling me this situation is unsafe. And if you’ve got a narcissist or a sociopath on your hands, then get those walls up, because your ego is right. But most people that hurt us are not sociopaths or narcissists, they are just people who have feelings and needs like us.

So I asked myself the question: if I was moving in the direction of empathy, how would I act, think and feel right now? Well, I’d go home, sit my husband down, tell him I was sorry and listen to his side of the conflict, empathize with it, then express how I felt, without blame and we would reconnect immediately, rather than two weeks later. But it would take me rising outside of my ego and leading with empathy like I usually do.

Three Ways To Stay Connected To Your Empathy During Conflict
  1. Slow down. In conflict everything happens very quick—we have all sorts of thoughts and biological responses. So slow it all down.
  2. Ask yourself whether you really need to turn your empathy off. This is often our default response, but it’s not always right.
  3. Take some time out of the conflict to re-connect to your empathy, before continuing.

Empathy is a much greater source inside of us than ego. It’s what we should be drawing from in conflict, for it allows our hearts to grow bigger, hold more, and move towards togetherness. If empathy is the great connector of humanity—the glue that holds us all together—then now more than ever, we need empaths to lead with empathy in conflict.