08/06/2009 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

How to Be Your Own Mediator: Empathize and Assert at the Same Time

You can disagree without being disagreeable. Gerald Ford

Whether you tend to empathy or assertiveness, balance by bringing in both qualities.

Feeling forced to choose to be assertive or empathetic is natural. Yet you may actually feel mixed and even desire to both assert and empathize.

Bringing in the other quality is easier than you might think. For example, begin with an empathetic statement to pave the road for an assertive statement. Consider making consecutive statements, one of each type. "If I were in your shoes, I might be really annoyed at this situation for the following reason... At the same time; in my role I have a responsibility to..." While assertiveness and empathy balance to a certain extent, each still has meaning that stands on its own. Intellectually we may perceive the two qualities as opposites, but they do not necessarily cancel each other out. They are both truths that co-exist. Articulate them together to move from either-or to both-and.

You can juxtapose empathy and assertiveness easily. Saying "I may be missing something" or "you may have already thought of this" before putting forth your thoughts conveys openness. Saying "I want to hear your perspective, before sharing mine" conveys putting forth your view and hearing theirs.

I mediated a challenging situation where an organization that required that the race of the president would alternate every other year, i.e. that a black president would be followed by a white president and vice versa. This was put in place when a historically white and a historically black organization merged together. However, an African American person ran after another African American served and won. This caused uproar, initially among the older generation of African Americans, and led to factions and accusations of racism amongst current membership. I remembered thinking how hard it was going be to facilitate this situation. What saved me was constantly juxtaposing empathy and assertiveness. Rather than spiraling into chaos, I slowed the conversation down by constantly increasing understanding before parties moved to the instinctive tendency toward assertion.

Fully acknowledge the other person's words. Paraphrase back to them authentically rather than mechanically. Put yourself into their shoes and follow with your story and strongly held beliefs. You then connect your empathy with your advocacy. Give both qualities space to shed new insight and solutions.

My next post will focus on how to tell a story from the opposing perspective to move beyond being mired in your own story.

To learn more about the importance of communication skills particularly in negotiation and conflict resolution, read about the solutions, results and publications Grande Lum has created at Accordence, Inc.
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