2 posts categorized "Empathy"

March 07, 2016

When employees are stuck in the pain of the past, how do we support them to move on?


You know… 

When you have an employee that has confided in you about something painful that they haven’t yet shared with their boss. 

And they don’t want you to raise the issue either. 

But they want to know what they should do? 

So you start by just giving them empathy, because without it, nothing is going to happen. 

You acknowledge their experience as fully as you can. 

You imagine and intuit, (to paraphrase Daniel Pink’s definition of empathy) what it is that they are feeling. 

This has a calming effect. 

As the truth of their subjective emotional experience is acknowledged - without defensiveness and without justification - they can relax and let their guard down. 

So now they are somewhat open. 

But be careful. 

If you invalidate they will close up again. 

As long as they are open you can attend to their original question. 

This takes great patience. 

To take the time necessary to hear out someone who is upset before attending to their request for your advice. 

Remember their question. 

What they should do to address the painful situation with their boss? 

Yours was how to get them to move on when they are stuck? 

You know to start with theirs. 

And of course you hope they get that they have a choice to communicate directly or not, (because often, until they do communicate, like in this situation, their boss has no idea of their grievance!) 

They may give you a quizzical light-bulb look and say something like, 

“You are right, I suppose we have to talk!” 

So they talk. 

And let’s say they resolve their issues in a manner of speaking. 

But when the employee comes back next month you know they didn’t really. 

And of course, now it’s much worse. 

So you read them the riot act!!! 


You start with empathy. 

You listen.

You acknowledge. 

You reflect back feelings and needs. 

And when they say, 

“So I tried talking . . . you see nothing helps . . . What should I do now?” 

You tell them they have a choice. 

That they can continue to pursue the resolution of their difference through external communication practices and even possibly with the support of you as a mediator. 

But that there is another choice. 

It is one of two ways that people are able to move on from the pain of the past. 

One is through true deep emotional acknowledgement of the truth of their experience by the other person. 

It may include a sincere apology. 

When this happens the transformation within a particular relationship can be profound. 

But when there is no acknowledgment, most humans get stuck. 

It is hard, when we have been hurt by another, with whom you are in relationship and they don’t acknowledge the truth of the impact of their behavior, notwithstanding their intent. 

Even mediation as a process that supports the resolution of conflict, has limits. 

It is no panacea. 

So what about that other way? 

I call it the internal path of conflict resolution. 

It is also known as the path of forgiveness. 

When we forgive, we let go of resentments. 

We don't need an apology. 

At its essence, as my friend and colleague Eileen Barker suggests, forgiveness is a decision to let go of the past and to tell a new story about what occurred. 

Paradoxically we grow from our inner inquiry. 

But how? 

One of the leading pioneers in research into forgiveness is Stanford’s Fred Luskin. 

He points out, that when we forgive, we invert the grievance process. 

When we grieve we take it personally and blame others for how we are feeling. 

We tell ourselves a story in which we are the victim. 

We hold them accountable for our peace of mind. 

When we forgive, we undo this grievance process. 

Instead of taking things personally, we recognize that things happen. 

But that these things are seldom as problematic as our own reaction. 

So when we forgive, we take responsibility for our own feelings. 

We learn our lessons and we retell our story, no longer as a victim, but as a navigator with a deeper understanding of the significance of the event to our lives. 

Remember, the questions. 

Yours was how to get them to move on when they are stuck? 

Theirs: What they should do to address the painful situation with their boss? 

Forgiveness is one of two ways we move on. 

The other is through heartfelt acknowledgement of emotional truth through communication with the other if necessary with the support of you as a mediator. 

Seems like the same answer works for both questions. 

What do you think?

November 16, 2015

To Vent or Not to Vent, that is the question!

I suspect that we have all vented our anger at some point in time.

You know, let off some steam, in the moment or after the fact, whether directly at the apparent source of our anger or at a substitute (like an innocent co-worker).

We may even have encouraged another to vent!

But, is venting a good idea?

My colleague, Tammy Lenski, recently described venting as one of the great conflict resolution myths that still abounds today:

“While venting anger may feel cathartic, venting anger doesn’t purge aggression from your system or improve your psychological state. In fact, venting is more likely to increase anger and aggressiveness than reduce them.”*


She bases her assertion on the research by Dr Brad Bushman at Iowa State University:

“Catharsis theory predicts that venting anger should get rid of it and should therefore reduce subsequent aggression. The present findings, as well as previous findings, directly contradict catharsis theory (e.g., Bushman et al., 1999; Geen & Quanty, 1977). For reducing anger and aggression, the worst possible advice to give people is to tell them to imagine their provocateur’s face on a pillow or punching bag as they wallop it, yet this is precisely what many pop psychologists advise people to do. If followed, such advice will only make people angrier and more aggressive.”**

The dilemma: We need to acknowledge our emotions, but not in a way that reinforces anger or aggression.

Rather, we need to get the emotion’s message so we can respond consciously in the moment, and if possible release any unintegrated negative emotional charge from our past.

Venting seldom changes the situation in a positive way, or prevents it from happening again.

In fact, it becomes an unhealthy habit that makes things worse! We traumatize ourselves with each retelling, searing more neurons to wire together around our pain.

So, what can we do?

Venting is not the emotion. It is the behavior.

Meaning, with awareness of our anger, we can choose to behave differently.

The emotion of anger signifies that we care about something, but feel powerless to address the situation to our satisfaction.

Instead of indulging in the behavior of venting we can explore strategies to address our needs in a positive manner.

And, if we must vent, we can limit ourselves to express it just once and then, as is often suggested for folk working in crisis centers, for not more than 5 minutes.

We can choose the person that we express our dissatisfaction to with care. Some are going to encourage us to take personal responsibility for our feelings and act consciously. Others are going to encourage us to do battle and blame.

And when we can, we can explore why it is that we experienced anger in the first place.

Exploring the energetic relationship between what is triggering us in the present moment, and the original emotional imprinting points the way to reducing our negative emotional charge (real results).

So be careful with venting.

It’s not as beneficial as we have been led to believe.

Unless we seek more anger and aggression in our lives!

*5 Common Beliefs about Conflict that are Dead Wrong by Tammi Lenski

** Does Venting Anger Feed or Extinguish the Flame? Catharsis, Rumination, Distraction, Anger, and Aggressive Responding, by Brad J. Bushman at Iowa State University