Conflict in life is inevitable. All of us are going to run into people that press our buttons and act in ways that lead us to believe they want nothing more than to make our lives miserable. The diversity that makes this world such a remarkable place can also be one of the most infuriating aspects of living in it. But whether that conflict arises from cultural differences, personality quirks, or even something as simple as one party not getting enough rest the previous night, the fact remains that people are going to tick us off in this life and it’s hard not to take it personally when they do.
A recent study by Gabrielle S. Adams and M. Ena Insesi, professors at the London Business School, however, illustrates that we often make those conflicts far larger than they need to be. They found that, much of the time, those responsible for a transgression never meant to cause any harm and, upon discovering that they had, felt genuinely guilty for having done so. For five days, they asked the participants in their study to keep a diary of those whom they wronged and those they felt had wronged them. It revealed that most people greatly overestimated the degree to which other people intended them harm and greatly underestimated the degree to which others perceived their actions as harmful.
Essentially, people tended to judge others more harshly than they judged themselves. As Adams pointed out, most of us can remember a time when we felt as though we’d been bullied but far fewer believe that we have bullied someone else. And while the idea that we tend to see ourselves in a better light than others is hardly revolutionary, Phyllis Korkki of the New York Times reports that the pair’s solution just might be.
Because people tend to have a higher assessment of themselves than others, Adams and Insesi found that empathy was the key to expediting the process of forgiveness. When we try to put ourselves in the other person’s shoes and imagine how they might have seen that interaction, it becomes easier to give them the benefit of the doubt. Oftentimes a misplaced word or thoughtless comment is simply that and nothing more. The nefarious and sinister motivations we assign to other people’s actions are usually just the product of our own insecurities. That understanding is vital for two primary reasons.
First, as Christians, God has called each of us to be peacemakers—people who speak God’s peace into difficult and trying situations (Matthew 5:9). A key part of that, as Adams and Insesi point out, is being able to have compassion for those on the other side of that conflict. Jesus always saw to the heart of people and had mercy for those others quickly judged and condemned. He empathized with their plight and, while never excusing their sin, was often able to help them move past those mistakes by giving them the chance to be defined by something more.
What Jesus did for the sinners of his day, he has done for each of us. Every sin we have committed was ultimately perpetrated against the Lord (Genesis 39:9, Psalm 51:4, Romans 3:23). Yet, he has given us the opportunity to become more than our worst mistakes (John 1:12). As peacemakers, we are called to do the same for those that sin against us.
Second, the same empathy that can help us to forgive sins committed against us can also help us avoid making careless and thoughtless mistakes. If we can do a better job of thinking about how others might receive our words before we speak them—something God’s word advises each of us to do constantly (Ecclesiastes 5:2, James 1:19)—then perhaps we can avoid creating the kinds of situations in which we must ask forgiveness of others. Jesus commanded us to treat others as we would want to be treated (Matthew 7:12), and that same principle applies to every kind of interaction we have with those around us.
So the next time you are either having trouble forgiving someone or in a situation where you are prone to cause offense, take a minute to pray and ask God to help you see the situation through the other person’s eyes. Such empathy can be the key to diffusing or preventing the kinds of conflict that quickly escalate beyond control. And whether that sort of empathy comes naturally or not—to be clear, “this is just who I am” is always a terrible reason to disregard the perspective of someone else—know that it’s a fundamental part of God’s plan for your interactions with others. Will you live it out today?