When friends, loved ones, and colleagues tell us about a conflict they’re experiencing, how we respond helps shape their conflict story. And what they do next.
A friend who mediates legal cases was regaling me with a story about a court employee who treated her with disrespect. As I listened to my friend’s description of the employee’s behavior, I felt outrage on my friend’s behalf. I heard myself say, “That’s just not acceptable! How could she think it’s ok to talk to you that way?” I watched my friend grow increasingly more incensed as she told the story and I supported her by endorsing her outrage. With my own outrage I was contributing to the construct of her conflict story about this employee.
What if, instead, I had said something like, “Oh my! Do you think she must have been having a terrible day to have said something like that?” Or, “Yikes! You sure can be a force to be reckoned with when someone inadvertently steps on your toes.” Instead of endorsing a story already taking shape with gusto, I could have chosen to help my friend consider other ways of looking at her experience.
Who knows whether those ways would have been more useful or helpful to her? I tell you this experience simply to highlight that the way we support someone has an impact. When we conflate supporting with endorsing, we become one-trick ponies with limited ability to truly help those we care about.
Supporting can mean something more than endorsing their conflict story. Helping a friend in conflict can mean helping them think. It can mean helping them understand what happened in different ways than the one they’ve chosen. It can mean challenging their thinking in a kind and loving way. We can say things like,
What do you think you’re going to do about it?
What are some additional ways of understanding what happened?
How can I help you think this through?