When someone is upset, one familiar response is to ignore it and forge ahead. Another is to try to make them feel better with kind reassurance. Both of these approaches are a version of “make it go away.” There’s a third, more fruitful approach: Turn toward it.
As the two people argued in front of me, I sat there, pitifully silent. I opened my mouth to speak several times, but nothing came out. I just couldn’t figure out what to say.
Out of the corner of my eye, I could see movement from my mediation coach, sitting far off to the right. She was looking at me intently. The look clearly conveyed, “Do something!”
Still nothing came out of my mouth, even as the discussion in front me grew more intense. And the more I couldn’t come up with the right words, the more frustrated and ashamed I grew with myself, leaving me more wordless than the moment before.
Finally, my coach stood up, stopped the mediation role-play, and walked over to me. “What’s going on for you right now?” she asked. I replied by starting to cry.
It was 1997 and I was in my last term as a mediation student. I’d earned my doctorate a few years before and had returned to school for an additional year to study mediation.
The mediation I was mangling so badly should have been well within my ability by that last term. My mediation teacher, Alice, whom I so wanted to impress with my skill and prowess, was my coach that day.
A few minutes later I sat in Alice’s office, crying. And feeling embarrassed about crying, making me cry more. I was a college vice president at the time, used to shouldering a lot in a day, and not one much given to crying.
“I thought I was a capable person,” I said. “But I can’t mediate my way out of a cardboard box.” More tears.
Alice sat there quietly, doling out the occasional tissue. Her compassion was palpable, her attention fully on me. But she wasn’t doing what I expected.
Alice was quite noticeably not trying to make me feel better. There was no “It’s only a momentary rough spot” or “You’re just having a bad day.” There was no “Don’t worry, you are a good mediator” or “Even good mediators can get stuck.”
I wanted those kind of reassurances rather desperately, particularly from someone like Alice. Didn’t I?
But Alice didn’t fall into the dismissive positivity trap. Psychologist Whitney Goodman coined the terms “dismissive positivity” and “toxic positivity” to describe the problem with empty, well-intended reassurance.
Dismissive positivity is reassurance that’s mismatched with the other person’s needs or situation. It implies that they just need to shift their attitude.
Says Goodman, “Positivity becomes ‘toxic’ or ‘dismissive’ when we don’t leave space for validation or understanding. This usually happens when we move into positivity too quickly. We might completely bulldoze through someone’s internal experience and force them into this place of sunshine and rainbows.”
Well-meaning reassurance makes us feel helpful, but doesn’t make us actually helpful.Tweet
Alice also didn’t fall into the buried empathy trap. Dr. Tessie October, M.D., and her research team coined the term “buried empathy” to describe the problem with responses like these:
- Redirecting the conversation to something you feel safer addressing (“I hear you mediated well yesterday. Tell me more about that.”).
- Trying to fix (“Next time you find yourself in that situation, try this…”).
- Immediately following with conflict resolution jargon (“The size of the problem space probably contributed to significant cognitive overload.”).
- Beginning the response with “but” (“But didn’t you notice how much you were able to soften his position on the form of acceptable public art?”).
- Responding with factual data (“This mediation role-play was based on a very difficult real case that didn’t get resolved in mediation, and only about 25% of role-playing mediators are able to resolve it.”).
These kinds of responses also disregard the person’s reality and experience, this time by creating emotional distance.
Buried empathy is empathy that is felt but ignored, sometimes in the name of professionalism or efficiency.
In a 2018 study at a pediatric intensive care hospital, Dr. October and colleagues examined conversations between doctors and parents discussing very difficult medical decisions required for children’s care. Buried empathy by the physicians stopped the conversation or led to family members switching to emotionally distant responses themselves. While this may have felt emotionally safe or clinically efficient for the physicians, they missed important opportunities.
When physicians “unburied” their empathy, reported Dr. October, “…families tended to answer in ways that revealed their hopes and dreams for the patient, expressed gratitude, agreed with care advice or expressed mourning–information that deepened the conversation and often offered critical information for making shared decisions about a patient’s care.”
Dismissive positivity and buried empathy have something in common: They turn away from suffering.
Sometimes we turn away from suffering out of our own discomfort. Sometimes because we feel helpless. Sometimes because we fear we’ll open the floodgates and not know how to close them again. Sometimes we do it out of habit, drilled into us by our professions or families.
Whatever the reason, turning away from suffering leaves the sufferer out in the cold. There are so few people in our day who take the time to understand, acknowledge, and turn toward our suffering. What could it be like if we were some of those few who bring others that gift?
Alice was one of those few.
She asked gentle and probing questions to help me think and process: What was going on for you in there? Why do you think that was happening? Why do you conclude you can’t mediate worth a damn? Gee, it sounds like you came smack up against your own drive to be perfect…what do you take from that? What are you going to do with the learning from this awful experience?
Slowly, the tears subsided as I worked through the questions Alice posed. Somewhere in the distance, a small ray of sun began to shine, not because Alice pushed me to see it, but because she honored my experience without leaving me to dwell there alone.
Those few minutes in Alice’s office taught me something about conflict resolution that I hadn’t understood other than intellectually: The way to help others who are upset isn’t to try making them feel better so we can all move along. It isn’t to fix things for them or contradict their experience or change the conversation so that we feel good about ourselves.
The real solace for someone who is upset, as Alice knew and so exquisitely taught me that day, is to turn toward their suffering. It is to hold the space for them. It is to offer small caring actions instead of grandiose acts of rescue. It is to help them process emotions and experiences.
As U.S. Magistrate Judge Michael Aloi said in a speech I heard a few years ago,
What they want to know is, are they no longer going to be alone in their suffering?