Existential Psychology

Helping People Move Through Conflict

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The critical mistake most of us make when people experiencing life conflicts come to us for help is that we think what they want is our advice. Of course they often think what they want is our advice too. But more often than not our supposedly well-intentioned advice is actually a cover for the chance to derive feelings of efficacy and superiority out of the situation.

When we jump straight to giving advice we’re seeing things from our points of view, from what we’d do in similar circumstances, which means we’re not really listening, we’re not really creating a space for the other to feel heard or to explore possibilities. Instead we project our own hidden values and biases onto that person, all under the rubric of providing help.

In the Catholic tradition hell is defined as the absence of God. This is a powerful symbol for human life. Feeling isolated and alone, bereft of community, cut off from anyone who really knows us or understands us, is hell. The unobserved life is hell. Sometimes simply knowing someone is there in the boat with us is all that’s necessary for us to summon up the courage and tenacity to weather the storm, to activate our individual powers in order to move through our life crises on our own instead of depending on someone else to do it for us.

Offering advice right away narrows possibilities.  And widening possibilities is the name of the game when we realize that the anxiety and doubt embedded within conflict situations tend to create tunnel vision. Helping people move through conflict starts with the firm decision to practice compassionate listening, to be actively interested in the meaning of the other’s words, in understanding things from the other’s perspective, rather than quickly categorizing those words within the parameters of our own life constructs and spitting out a solution based on those subjective perspectives.

Two of the most effective ways to help others explore possibilities while engaged in compassionate listening are strategies therapists use with their clients all the time. These are mirroring and asking open-ended questions. Mirroring repeats back, in our own words, what the person struggling with conflict has just said to us. Open-ended questioning gets away from yes/no answers, phrasing the question in a way that allows for any number of answers and can’t simply be confirmed or denied.

In all of this what we’re really trying to do for people embroiled in conflict is help them combat the unconscious pain and isolation of the unobserved life by letting them feel truly heard and understood. In this paradigm, where seeking to really understand the other’s viewpoint and assisting in the other’s personal exploration are the primary goals, people are often able to come to their own conclusions for what they need to do, they’re able to give themselves their own advice for how to move forward. But even when they can’t figure out what to do, that feeling of trust and community that’s being generated will make our own advice, if and when we choose to give it, much more likely to land, much more likely to be earnestly considered rather than given lip service.