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  • Writer's pictureBess de Boer

Empathy: The first step on the walk from 'No' to 'Yes'

Empathy: The first step on "the walk from 'No' to 'Yes'"

Empathy has the power to melt an iceberg of resistance

I still remember the first morning I walked into the teaching hall at Harvard for an intensive course on mediating disputes.

Each of the three professors teaching the course was a globally recognized expert in high stakes negotiation, having authored best-selling books on the subject. Forty-eight of us including lawyers, judges and executives gathered from various corners of the globe eager to take our negotiation skills to new heights.

But what unfolded that morning was quite a departure from what most of us thought we had bargained for. From the first hour, a different paradigm was methodically being established. The rules of a game we had all played with proficiency and results, was being turned on its head.

Instead of power plays, here they spoke of ‘understanding differences’. Instead of strategies to gain advantage, they mapped out roads to ‘finding the third side’. Instead of showing us how to gain ground in head-on collisions, they demonstrated the art of ‘going to the balcony’ to gain perspective.

The complex and delicate dance of negotiation that they were choreographing came to rest on one surprising key element: Empathy – the enigmatic and often misunderstood emotion that is at the root of human connection. 

As our time there progressed, we witnessed the alchemy of empathy repeatedly shift the energy between parties in conflict, even in the most acrimonious situations. Faces softened. Shoulders dropped. An air of possibility curiously entered the room.

At the end of this intense experience one idea above all others rooted deeply in my core: empathy has the power to melt an iceberg of resistance. It can take people gently by the hand and lead them from anger and intransigence, to openness and a willingness to work together towards solutions. 

In the years that followed I became obsessed with the quiet power I had come to see this emotion wield. Like a peaceful warrior, empathy provoked change without force even in the most difficult contexts of human conflict. Why was its impact so powerful? How could it shift the energy between people so profoundly as to bridge vast chasms of disconnection?

What I’ve come to discover is that its power lies in three steps: 

1. STOP - Find the courage to suspend your own story 

2. LISTEN – Truly listen to the other’s story 

3. UNDERSTAND – Walk in the other's shoes, even in the face of great divides 

For me this approach to disputes was a redress - the healing of a long-standing fracture, created by a successful career in legal combat and my nature as as a peacemaker, always striving to make room for human connection.

It marked the beginning of my journey to pave roads to ‘yes’.

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