The image shows magazine cut outs of the letters E M P A T H Y pinned to a cork board. Empathy is a great tool to help facilitate a discussion between employees in conflict.

Don’t you think that one of the hardest things about effectively facilitating a discussion between employees in conflict is getting them to understand the other’s perspective? Often, by the time things have escalated to getting someone else in the organisation involved, such as a human resources manager, or their supervisor, the parties have become entrenched in their positions and are digging their work shoe heels in.

Encouraging curiosity between employees in conflict is essential when facilitating a discussion, because, it helps them empathise, see the other’s perspective and ultimately reach an agreement.

Seeing things from another’s perspective, broadens the outlook of people in dispute, and helps people create more opportunities to resolve their differences. Want to find out how to help employees who don’t get along feel empathy towards each other in a facilitated discussion? Read on to find out.

What is empathy?

Empathy is the ability to imagine and understand the thoughts, perspective, and emotions of someone else. It’s often used interchangeably with sympathy, but they’re different. Sympathy is the ability to share another person’s feelings and concerns, and also feel the accompanying emotions such as happiness, sadness or anger.

What we’re aiming for in a facilitated discussion is to help people develop empathy, that is, understand where the other person is coming from, not sympathy. We’re not expecting them to experience the same feelings as the other person, or feel pity for them.

In a facilitated discussion, how / when do we help people become more empathic?

A facilitated discussion is a conversation guided by…you guessed it… a facilitator. It’s to help people who are having difficulties communicating, or are in conflict, understand each other and work through their differences respectfully. It often involves:

  • separate individual sessions, and
  • a joint discussion, which includes a private talk with each party

We can sow seeds of empathy in all stages of this process.

What to do BEFORE you encourage empathy between the parties

It’s crucial that the parties feel heard before you encourage them to have empathy for the other. This is at all stages of the facilitation discussion process. They have to have the opportunity to say how they feel first. Once they’ve expressed their positions, and how they feel, then they’re more capable for showing compassion for the other person. Otherwise, rather than encourage empathy, the tactics below might increase hostility.

For example, you might ask party A “what do you think this conflict is like for Adam”. To which party A might reply “I don’t care at all. This is all his fault”. Not ideal. But, if party A is encouraged to talk about what’s important to them, and the impact the conflict has had on their lives, they’ll be more willing to talk about the feelings of the other person.

If you’d like me to facilitate the discussion, call me on 0414 722 388 or email me at

Separate individual sessions

Encourage the staff members to become curious about the other person’s perspective. For example, after they’ve told you about the conflict from their own perspective, you can ask questions like:

*What do you think is going on for Adam? Are there any new pressures for him?

*Is there anything happening in Adam’s personal life that might have contributed to conflict?

*What can you tell me about the values Adam has? How might his values affect his actions?

They can’t answer these question? It doesn’t matter. Just by thinking about what might be happening for the other person should start to shift their thinking and increase their empathy.

During the joint sessions in a facilitated discussion

There are ways to ramp up the empathy in the joint session too.


Ask each party to talk about the impact the conflict has had on them. The other might not realise it. And the conflict might have had a similar affect on both people. Perhaps they’re both not sleeping? Having a common experience as a result of the conflict often helps people soften slightly, and moves them towards finding solutions.


Getting the parties to summarise what the other has said can be an effective way to help them understand each other’s perspectives and empathise. Yet, it can be difficult for them to do. Some feel that by acknowledging the feelings of the other, they are agreeing with the other’s point of view. That they’re compromising their own position. To get around this, make it clear to the parties that:

*it’s your role as the facilitator to help them to understand each other and reach an agreement

*acknowledging what the other person is saying, and  summarising it, is not the same as saying that the other person is right and you’re wrong. It’s a way to show that you’re listening. And if the other person thinks you’ve properly listened to them, you’re more likely to reach agreement.


After Adam has spoken, you can ask Joe, ‘What did you hear Adam say?” Hopefully, Joe will accurately report this in his own words. But, here’s a warning: sometimes, people dramatically misinterpret what’s been said. If this happens, don’t correct. Ask Adam if what Joe repeated, was what Adam meant. If Adam says no, ask him if he’d say it again, and repeat the summary cycle.

Private sessions

In the private sessions, if you feel there’s more work to do to increase empathy, you can ask a few questions to put the parties in the other’s shoes. For example, you could ask ‘From what you’ve heard Adam say, and what you’ve learned about his feelings, what do you think this conflict has been like for him?’ Or ‘From what Joe shared earlier, what impact has this conflict had on his work and home life?’

I hope these tips help you hold a productive facilitated discussion with staff members in conflict.

If you’d like me to help your staff in conflict through mediation, please call me on 0414 722 388, or email me at

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