Perspective Taking, Empathy, and Relational Conflict at Work: An Investigation Among Participants in a Workplace Conflict Resolution Program
21 Pages Posted: 19 Jun 2012
Date Written: June 18, 2012
Evidence for an intriguing pattern has recently emerged, that of higher-empathy individuals — who have shown prosocial and self-sacrificing behaviour in other contexts (Batson, 1991; Batson & Ahmad, 2001) — becoming retaliatory under threat, such that joint resources are destroyed and conflict escalates (Gilin Oore, Maddux, & Galinsky, 2008). We investigate this phenomenon by contrasting how trait perspective taking and empathy may restrain versus escalate conflict, respectively. Perceptions of relational conflict were reported by health care workers seeking services (including education, coaching, mediation) through a conflict training and resolution program. Preliminary results (n=64; data collection still in progress) replicate the expected patterns of empathy-escalation versus perspective taking-restraint under threat: Workers reported significantly higher relational conflict the higher their empathy levels, with negative emotions — a proxy for emotionality — trending toward mediation of the effect. In contrast, higher perspective takers showed lower relational conflict perceptions, mediated by cognitive flexibility. We develop hypotheses to guide future research regarding how empathizing with others may ironically lead to greater conflict escalation under threatening or distressing circumstances.
Keywords: Relational conflict, empathy, perspective taking, threat, well-being
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