Conflicts are bound to arise, whether they are in our marriage, with our children, or between groups in society. The resolution of conflict involves something different than figuring out who was right. Ego’s take us away from understanding and towards prolonged conflict and unhappiness. To create a peaceful coexistence both parties need to listen and understand each other. Once both parties understand the other, you are a step closer to reconciliation and in some cases you have peace.
After you have been harmed, there is something in the human psyche that seeks a confirmation from the other party about the past indiscretion. Often this is done just by recognizing remorse in the other person. At other times this can be done with a simple apology. We learned to do it at 5 years old on the playground. If one child hurt another, the teachers stopped the fighting and got the two kids to understand the other’s experience. Once that was done, there would be an apology and they could go on and play and be friends again.
It looks simple but there are some critical social steps that need to happen in that process that are often overlooked as adults. Because these elements are lacking is why problems in your relationship, protests in society, and conflicts between cultures can go on for years or generations. What we need as humans to reconcile our past relationships whether between our spouse, or another race are often the same.
Imagine that you are at a concert. It’s your favorite band and it’s rocking and rolling. The person in the next seat is excited, jumping up and down, and they accidentally bump into you. Maybe your neighbor steps on your foot, or maybe you get an errant elbow. Its not really painful, but it is bothersome. You are polite and you don’t say anything. You figure they noticed and so you let it go. But then it happens a few more times. It’s all in good fun, but it is interfering with your enjoyment of the concert.
What do you want in that situation? What would help?
Maybe they play a mellow song next and so your neighbor calms down. But in your head you are still bothered by what might be coming when the beat picks up again. The problem looks solved in the moment, but maybe it’s just the mellow song? You can’t be sure. You want to be able to just let it go and trust that it won’t happen again, but you don’t have any way of knowing.
You could take a moment during the mellow song to point out what they were doing. What kind of response from your neighbor would work to alleviate your concerns so you could enjoy the show? What kind of response wouldn’t?
What you want is for them to acknowledge what happened and recognize the impact it had on your toes, or your person. If they respond with concern or remorse you can trust them to be good human beings that will be more careful. When they have empathy or remorse for what you experienced something in you registers that it will be okay now. You are understood at an emotional level. When that happens you may not even need an apology, or a promise that it won’t happen again. Something in your consciousness recognizes that they are now aware and will be more careful. These are seemingly small, but crucial elements in this exchange. Without them, you will feel that you can’t trust the situation, and you will worry about elbows coming your way.
Until you can register the right response in their facial expression, emotion, tone, and attitude, you will live in doubt, and some fear of having your toes stepped on again. What we seek in this communication is for them to know how you felt, or what we could call empathy, or compassion. This understanding between you and the other person isn’t just about acknowledging the past infraction, apologizing and moving on. We need this recognition in order to go safely into the future.
We want confirmation that we can have a future that will be free from the type of hurts we received in the past. Something happens in that emotional recognition of empathy that not only heals the past, but ensures a new bond going forward.
Without that social confirmation our mind will be on guard with fear, looking out for possible problems with every new song for the whole show. Even if it doesn’t happen again you will not have enjoyed the show because you were on edge for the two hours.
A Reply that Escalates
What if they reply that they aren’t doing anything so mind your own business? Factually they are correct. Right now the song is mellow and they aren’t doing anything. Facts about the present moment don’t alleviate your concerns for safety and comfort. You would like to just let it go for now and stop living in the past, but something in your mind still fixates on it. You have not gotten them to listen and understand. You had no indication that there was empathy or an understanding or a caring for your well being.
Maybe they talk about how they were just enjoying the music, and that everyone here is having a good time, and why don’t you just go with the flow. Maybe they talk about how you are being rude and inappropriate about interrupting their enjoyment of the show. You might like to but something in your mind concerned for your safety can’t. The less you are acknowledged and the more you are dismissed, the more you are tempted to raise your voice. You want to be heard. And being heard means more than physically listening with their ears. Being heard means something shifts in the other person’s understanding at an emotional and compassionate level. It happens when they know what you felt, and acknowledge their responsibility, even if it was unintentional.
You don’t want them to be punished or kicked out of the show. You don’t need restitution for the past indiscretion. Your main concern is to be able to go forward without having to protect your toes. Your psyche is looking for a signal that you are safe and that means that they have an awareness and concern for your well being that they didn’t display in the past. Until that happens, you will be tempted to raise your voice, interrupt what they say, and call security. The more they do the talking, interrupt, or change the topic from your concern, the more your anxiousness rises.
If your relationships aren’t healing, then likely it is because your communication process lacks compassionate and empathetic listening.
You don’t need that person to feel bad. You don’t need them to feel sorry, or have pity. You don’t need any special treatment. Most people today aren’t even asking or demanding restitution from the past. They just want to know, that you know at an emotional level, what the past experience was like for them. They trust that if the other party knows the experience of another human’s pain, our social instinct will guide us to be more careful.
Did it hurt emotionally when your partner criticized your cooking or made a joke about your weight? What kind of acknowledgement and understanding do you need to feel safe about it not happening again?
Their awareness will expand to have concern for our well being. Just like when we realize something we have done has hurt another, we instinctively change. This is remorse.
Once we recognize remorse in a person, we can drop our concerns about our toes being stepped on. It is this essential emotional component that changes human behavior. Intellectual understanding will not suffice.
The Larger Scale of Protest
This is what is happening today. People are seeking to be heard. They want to go forward with the concert of their lives feeling safe that old patterns of mistreatment will cease. People have been speaking up for a long time, and still don’t feel heard. It is why the same issues can last for decades in a family, or society. Some people are marching in the streets wanting that understanding and empathy from others. Some understand and give it. Others protest back and tell them to get over it. The latter wouldn’t work for you at the concert and it doesn’t work for them in their lives either.
People protest in many ways, some take a knee at a sporting event, some march in the streets with signs, some camp out in the streets and occupy a plot of land for days. What do they really want? They might want a policy or law to change. In the case of racial discrimination and police violence, they want police behavior to change. But before that change can happen, and what is at the core of this expression of protest, is they want to be understood at an emotional level. They are seeking compassion for their pains and empathy for injustice. This is a human emotional need, even though they may not be asking for it, or even realizing it consciously. Until this happens we can’t constructively move to the next phase of the conversation and reconciliation.
By seeking understanding of their past, and acknowledgement of responsibility, they are also seeking assurance of safety and peace in the future. People may be going about their protest in a ways not everyone agrees with. Some people listening are not responding with understanding. Some even respond with a complaint of their own about how the protest is inappropriate. It’s like that person that bumped into you says, “Mind your own business. Just let it go and enjoy the concert.” It wouldn’t work for you. It doesn’t feel good and so the tension and aggression escalates.
In this escalation a false belief is operating. “I will try harder and louder to do more of the same thing that didn’t work, and expect a different result.” If we start yelling at our neighbor for stepping on our toes they are not likely to be concerned with our well being. They will be on the defensive now and seeking their own safety from our violent words and emotions. We need a different process so we can move on from this echoing of hurts masquerading as reconciliation.
Reconciliation for Both Sides
One of the other problems in this layer cake is that the person stepping on the toes, probably hasn’t been heard and acknowledged either. They just went to that concert to let off a little steam, and enjoy some free expression in their life. That police officer might be too tightly wound from too many dangerous situations of violence. Given what they have witnessed and experienced they are going to be more careful. Unfortunately, that means assume the worst of every person, and situation, until they know they can feel safe. The police have had more than their toes violently walked on at some point. He or she may need to be listened to and understood as well until they feel safe in their community. We need to listen with compassion and empathy to them too. We need to understand and acknowledge what their life is like. It is likely that everyone’s toes are still sore and still hurt from someplace in the past.
Now, take your concert experience and multiply it by a factor of 10 or 100 for physical, economic, and emotional abuses. Then multiply the evening by years and lifetimes and you will begin to have an idea why people are so loud in their protest and of the desire people have for empathy. In that magnitude you will know the pain that drives their protest.
Often the problem here is that when a person protests loudly we see a person who is loud and disruptive. It becomes easy to miss the hurt they want us to see and understand. Do your best to look past the loudness and the anger of people and with your awareness look to see what the hurts are behind them.
Then take a seat and be prepared to close your mouth for a while and listen, to both sides. No one is asking you to agree with their point of view. You didn’t have their experience, they know that. They are only asking that you listen and do your best to understand their experience.
If you find the need to interrupt, to change the topic, dismiss what they say, or correct them on the minor details of factual points like names, places, and times, then you stopped listening to understand their experience and emotions.
For some major issues in this country this honest compassionate conversation hasn’t happened yet. Our racial tensions continue to exist because there has not been a full and honest acknowledgement of past hurts. People are still seeking confirmation that injustices be acknowledged so they feel they can go on safely with their lives without repeat. This kind of deep listening was accomplished in South Africa, and other places in Africa through Truth and Reconciliation Commissions. It was only after all sides got heard, emotionally heard, and understood that reconciliation happened and progress in restoring relationship bonds could be made.
How do you want to be listened to and acknowledged when you have been slighted? What can you do to listen to another when they have been mistreated?
You can call it compassionate listening, empathy, or listening to understand. I call it a pathway to healing and happiness in relationships. You don’t have to heal all of society, but it might be good to begin with practicing with your spouse, your children, family and friends. Once we take that step, we can take the next one.
Gary van Warmerdam
And for improving your relationship communication I suggest The Relationship Course Exercises.3