Training Employees to Have Empathy for People They Don’t Like

It’s not unusual for employees to experience friction with co-workers. One strategy to conflict resolution is to engender mutual sympathy or empathy.

I have strong feelings about people. I love some people and really, really don’t like others. I experienced this extreme dislike for former co-workers and for a neighbor. It gets so bad that everything they do makes me mad. I realize that life and personalities are complex, so there is probably a lot in these people’s lives for which I could feel empathy.

It’s not unusual for employees to experience friction with co-workers. Often, both employees in the conflict are valuable to the organization. One strategy to conflict resolution is to engender mutual sympathy or empathy. If each employee knows what the other is dealing with, and why they act the way they do, the anger might die down. In conflict, it’s easy to assume everything the other person does is directly aimed at annoying or irritating you. When you have empathy for the other person by understanding their perspective, you may see that their actions have much more to do with themselves than with you.

Proceed with Open Communication

I found an article on Thrive Global by Stephanie Fairyington with tips from psychologist and researcher Myriam Mongrain, Ph.D., on developing empathy for someone you don’t like. She says to “proceed with open communication.” The person you disagree with may have a worldview you can’t relate to at first thought, but with greater communication, you might find points of commonality. “If someone’s values are repugnant to you, try and work your way to the fundamental emotion underlying their belief system, Mongrain says. Getting at their primal feelings will humanize them and make them more relatable. ‘It will require open communication,’ Mongrain says, ‘where you’ll agree on a certain level of respect for each other’s opinion. Then, you’ll try and dig a little deeper into why they have a particular attitude or belief,’” Fairyington writes.

Take a Wider View

It also helps to think “globally,” meaning to think about the larger context of the person’s experiences. If they are older, for instance, the world they experienced was much different from what a person who is young experienced. “An older person,” Mongrain tells Fairyington, “has a very different history and set of experiences. They grew up with different doctrines driving their worldview.”

Similarly, a person who grew up in a different socio-economic situation can approach life differently. I had a roommate once who kept the door to her bedroom in our apartment locked whenever she wasn’t there and kept a strict watch on her food in the refrigerator, as though she were taking inventory every night. I looked down on her for this, considering her a petty, suspicious person. However, I then remembered that the place she grew up was much different from where I grew up, and then could feel empathy for why she would be so protective of her possessions.

Respond with Compassion

Mongrain’s advice to “respond with love even when being hosed with hate” is substantially harder for me. At the very least, I have learned not to respond. I learned to stay silent and walk away or ignore. My approach, unfortunately, conflicts with Mongrain’s earlier advice to have open communication with the person you don’t like. I found that the old saying, “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all,” is what works best for me. If you don’t have a tight control on your emotions, disengaging, at least temporarily, can be a good coping mechanism. The worst is to engage in petty back-and-forth exchanges.

We’re More Alike Than Different

Mongrain says it can be helpful to remember that “no one is their beliefs.” You still have the same basic human elements as this other person. You both need to sleep, eat, have fun, spend time with loved ones, and maybe have other things in common such as a child or pet you love. She notes that we are more alike than different, even with people we think we have nothing in common with.

Do Something Nice

She advises doing something nice for that person you don’t like. I found an old cocktail guide my parents had gotten in the ’60s with a recipe for a cocktail specific to the home country of my nemesis’ husband. I brought it to the office triumphantly to show her. My effort fell flat, but I felt better doing something that finally allowed me to direct positive energy toward her.

Do you train employees to find ways of empathizing with colleagues they find difficult to tolerate?