As all workplace mediators know, empathy is hugely important in mediation. When we are in conflict, our tendency is to dehumanize each other and this makes it very hard, if not impossible, to have empathy for what the other person may be going through.
As a workplace mediator, I am always struck by how inward-looking most of us become when we are in conflict. Because conflict can be so all-consuming, it seems that we lose sight of what is going on around us. And that makes it very hard for us to have empathy for anyone else.
A recent workplace mediation case that I facilitated involved a female manager and her male employee. The employee had taken out a grievance against his manager. This was investigated and one of the recommendations of the investigation was that the parties attend mediation.
This was the first time in the manager’s professional career that anyone had ever taken out a grievance against her. Although she did not want to talk about it, it was clear from her body language that this had been very painful for her. She had been working at this particular organisation for a long time and felt embarrassed by the fact that there had been such a serious complaint made against her. She was also concerned by how this might affect her reputation within the organisation.
As is often the case, both parties had very little empathy for each other at the beginning of mediation. This is not unusual. What made this case more unusual was that the manager had very little self-empathy. She was able to speak about the conflict from an intellectual perspective, but she wasn’t able to speak about how the conflict had affected her emotionally.
My co-mediator and I tried to support her to open up about the emotional impact of the conflict, but she refused to go there. She would simply say: “I have to get on with it,” or “It happened and I have to move on.” Her body language showed something very different – she was agitated when she spoke and maintained little eye contact, and her eyes welled up when she spoke about what had happened.
Interestingly, there was some movement during the day of mediation and the parties were able to speak about how they wanted to work together going forward. But the manager rejected any attempts by the employee to speak about the past. It seemed like this was her way of protecting herself from the pain that the conflict had caused. And because she couldn’t open up about how the conflict had impacted her, it was very difficult for the employee to have empathy for her.
In every mediation, we learn new lessons about human interactions and conflict dynamics, and question the role of the mediator. This particular mediation taught me the importance of self-empathy as potentially a prerequisite for empathy. It also made me question the role of the mediator in helping to support parties to have empathy for themselves and each other. As much as empathy is important to mediation, it is not the mediators’ role to “force” empathy, but to create the environment where parties feel as safe as possible to have as open and honest a conversation with each other as they are able to at that particular point in time.
When I followed up with the parties after mediation, the employee said that he had found the day useful. The manager less so. But the manager did say that her working relationship with her employee was better, and that some of the past tension had dissipated. Perhaps in the future the two will be able to have more empathy for each other. And hopefully going through the process of mediation will help the manager to have more self-empathy too.