Is Silence a Sign of Empathy?

On January 5, 2021

There is a lot of talk about this word out there these days from authors such as Brene Brown and Simon Sinek. Their research and motivational speaking have been inspirational to me and many others. In this blog post I aim to make a contribution to the conversation by talking about empathy in the context of conflict.

Empathy is often a subtle communication that may come across in words or with only a look. It can look like a kind face that signals to us that we’re being heard or cared for by the one with whom we have become vulnerable. Empathy is easy enough to spot when we have trust for the one sharing the space with us. However, it could become exceedingly difficult to notice acts of care in a relationship where chronic misunderstanding has led to firm judgements and impasse.

How Misunderstanding Can Lead to Conflict

If we’re angry and in pain because of these communication patterns, conflict can arise in the following ways:

  • We may start blaming the other for what has happened to us.
  • They, in turn, may feel the urge to defend their right to fair acknowledgement.
  • Or perhaps the next time the conflict starts we may simply feel we cannot get involved this time, we can feel our pain but are unable to retaliate.

A lack of response is commonly understood in our culture as a weakness, or the absence of care for the one who is expressing how they were hurt. As a divorce mediator in Toronto, my take on this silence is that it is often an act of non-participation, and a temporary halting to the pattern of fighting. This is both an act of self-care and empathy towards the other.

The moment of silence can happen after the heat of the conflict has dissipated and we seek separation from our spouse. But this choice alone does not end the need to retaliate. Mediation can help eliminate or at least make more tolerable the conversions that need to take place.

How to Bear Witness to Our Own Emotions

In activist communities, there is a practice known as “bearing witness.” Its purpose is to give space to the intense and potentially destructive emotions we’re feeling as we become aware of an injustice to our rights and values or to those of others. When we bear witness, we allow the hot fire of a reaction to overwhelm us internally and emotionally. Our self-care can now turn from silence into action that supports our greater goals in life.

“Surrendering” during a fight is an act of empathy because it opens us up to the pain of our spouse or friend while allowing us to feel our own pain. Other than the words we use, is my pain or their pain really a different feeling? Surrendering is an essential aspect to a process of self-reflection and for anyone who needs to productively participate in a co-parenting relationship for the benefit of their child.

In the relative calm after the heat of the fight when self-reflection begins, we all have the opportunity to choose the following paths:

  • Work towards lasting resolutions.
  • Repair a relationship so that we can make the necessary choices needed to move forward,
  • Continue “being right” and return to the pain of separation that comes with that unrestrained desire.

Conflict hurts, but being open to finding new ways to speak about what is important to us, can reduce its intensity over time. 

How do you want to remember your separation mediation? Contact me to see how family mediation can work for you.

Richard Brydson

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