Conflict and suffering are bedfellows. When we’re trying to help others in conflict, whether as mediators, leaders, or family members, we can help them better if we can turn toward their suffering instead of withdrawing from it.
Philosopher and activist Simone Weil said, “Those who are unhappy have no need for anything in this world but people capable of giving them their attention. The capacity to give one’s attention to a sufferer is a very rare and difficult thing.”
It is difficult to bear witness to another’s suffering. Our discomfort may tempt us to withdraw from it and move the conversation past it. Or maybe we have an impulse to rescue them, to make them feel better. Perhaps we want to spare them the embarrassment that can come from suffering openly in front of others. Maybe we doubt our own capacity to be truly helpful. Perhaps we fear that standing in the shadow of pain will somehow shift its weight to our own shoulders. Or maybe we have an impulse to prove our problem-solving worth and the messiness of suffering feels like an inefficient side trip on the road to resolution.
If we can check impulses like these, we make room for something both powerful and helpful. If we can expand our thinking about what it means to work with people in conflict, moving beyond only the transactional experience of getting a problem solved and toward the emotional experience of the conflict, we can play a pivotal role in addressing suffering.
Turning toward suffering
Dr. Ronald Epstein and Dr. Anthony Black, both medical doctors, noticed that many physicians tended to withdraw emotionally when their patients experienced suffering. They developed approaches they teach physicians to help ease their patients’ suffering.
They call one of the approaches “turning toward.” Turning toward suffering means recognizing it and inviting patients to reflect on their experience by asking probing questions.
From the time I first stumbled upon their work nearly a decade ago, I’ve been using one of the questions they developed to turn toward my own clients’ suffering and offer the chance to explore it if they wish:
There’s an honesty that this question invites. It’s an invitation to lay bare what’s at the core of the conflict for someone. The question helps someone peel away layers of extraneous “stuff” and focus on the heart of the matter in fresh ways and often with fresh language.
If, as I’ve written previously, every conflict contains a bid to be seen, this question opens the door for that seeing.
It is, by the way, a good question to ask ourselves, too: What is the worst part of this? We can use it not only to better elucidate the shape of our suffering but also to uncover why something is eating at us.