High-stress situations and interactions where tensions are mounting can result in a spillover of emotion, such as anger or frustration. De-escalating a situation requires the participation and consent of all involved. There are several actions individuals can take to enhance the likelihood of achieving de-escalation.  These actions fall into 3 main categories, the second of which is empathize.

Empathizing is important because, whether you feel the source of anger or frustration is valid or justified, you need to recognize those feelings are real. Respecting those feelings as well as demonstrating a sincere desire to understand more about the root cause of those feelings are key steps towards working towards a resolution.

The first and most important step in demonstrating empathy is to listen.  It is difficult to solve a problem or fix an issue if you do not know what the problem or issue is. Taking the time to listen allows you the opportunity to obtain a greater understanding. In many instances it can serve as an emotional release valve for the person with whom you are engaging. Sometimes people just want to be heard.  

When it is appropriate to respond, summarize what they said using your own words or injecting keywords or phrases that they just used. This not only helps to bring more clarity to the subject but is also an effective way to demonstrate you really heard and understood what has been said.  

If the opportunity presents itself and it is appropriate, which it will not always be, utilize bridge-building phrases such as “I understand your frustration” or “I am sympathetic to your problem.” Phrases like these can help to start shifting the dynamic of the interaction from two opposing sides to one unit working together.

Explaining can also play an important role in empathizing. Providing an explanation as to why an action was taken or a decision was made allows for additional clarity and demonstrates respect for the individuals with whom you are interacting. Reactions to these explanations may often not be received positively. 

It is important to remember empathizing and agreeing do not necessarily go hand in hand.  Effectively demonstrating empathy does, however, help lay the foundation for you to have the ability to close out the interaction by providing options for resolution while setting expectations for future interactions.