Victimology 101: Helping the Victim in Conflict Resolution

Distinguishing Between Sympathy and Empathy

“The mill cannot grind with the water that’s past”. (George Herbert, d. 1633)

It is a fact that in many conflict resolution settings, such as mediations or settlement conferences, you will experience someone cloaked in the mantle of what I refer to as “victimology“. Regardless of the nature of his experience, i.e., from the most horrific to the merely inconvenient, he is lost in the victim paradigm. This means he either cannot — or will not — advance from that position. Or, if he’s not lost, per se, he’s using his victim hood, consciously or unconsciously, as a negotiation tactic. In my experience, this can present a difficult and unwieldy situation for all involved.

On the one hand, you don’t want to appear unsympathetic and cold-hearted. On the other, it’s important that you be able to navigate your path somehow through the conflict to ultimate resolution. What lies in between?

First, note the difference between the notions of sympathy and empathy. Sympathy occurs when one shows sadness or regret, commiseration, for another’s position or experience. Empathy, however, activates through your intellectual identification of another’s experiences without commiseration. The key to interacting with someone who is in victim mode is to first, take an empathetic stand with him. He must know that you truly understand and are concerned about his experiences.

Ways of Showing Empathy

The idea is to listen very carefully to what the person is saying and then acknowledge his experience, his position, his pain, if appropriate. One of the ways in which this can be done to to paraphrase, in your own words, what he’s told you and then repeat them back to him. Not parrot-like, but in a sincere, meaningful way. Another empathic strategy is to ask him appropriate questions about his experience. What was it like? How did he deal with it? How is he coping now?

It is critical to carve out sufficient time for this empathic dialogue. The length of time needed, of course, will depend upon the nature of the person and his circumstances. So, allow sufficient time to establish empathy…. make sure that he has experienced your empathy — and then move on.

Moving On: Focus on the Present

People who are suffering from “victim hood” are stuck in the past. Generally speaking, they are not fully present. I realize this might sound cold, but from the standpoint of conflict resolution and negotiations, you simply cannot reach resolution in the present moment if one of the parties is stuck in the past. Regardless of whether the “victim” lost a leg, sustained a head injury, or lost a loved one, the fact is that the past cannot be changed. You can only resolve a dispute in the now, the present.

I have found that most people who are “real” victims (for lack of better terminology) do want their losses to be acknowledged and they do want your empathy. And, in very real ways, they really do want to move on, inasmuch as such a thing is possible. In contrast, those who are consciously or unconsciously using their “victim hood” for purposes of negotiation, want to stay in the past as much as possible. They want to keep the focus on themselves and their misfortune(s). This is not conducive to emphasizing what needs to be done now to reach resolution.

There’s no Magic Wand

Sometimes the best approach with these people, after the appropriate empathic strategies have been utilized, is to re-focus them in the present. In some mediations I have said that if I had a magic wand I would have used it so that none of the events that transpired had ever occurred. But I don’t have such a wand — and neither do they. We cannot change what took place in the past. We can only face it now and deal with it — or not.

Put another way: the point of power is in the present moment. We cannot change what transpired. We cannot obviate the events that occurred. We cannot undo the damage that has been sustained. But we can use dialogue to explore some appropriate remedies that may, in some ways, compensate the person thus aggrieved.

And we can only engage in such exploration in the present moment. The present transcends the past as it relates to reaching an accord.

3 Responses to “Victimology 101: Helping the Victim in Conflict Resolution”

  1. People Wise says:

    This is great advice. As an HR Consultant I am often called in to investigate complaints of Sexual Harassment or Discrimination and I find that in cases where a person has a “chronic victim” personality their complaints are not taken seriously enough even if they are valid. It is the boy who cried wolf scenario.

    I warn my clients that EVERY complaint should be taken seriously no matter the personality of the complainer. With that said, however, I would caution that employers add language to their harassment policies that adds a disciplinary measure for false complaints.

    Someone who uses a harassment complaint for something other than stopping harassment should be terminated!

  2. Stephen says:

    Nicely said. People need to move on, but it isn’t a “magic bullet” or “wandwaver” moment — it is something that takes time and real work by the mediator.

  3. Matt says:

    I teach conflict resolution and mediation in Michigan. Your blog hit on a important topic I cover with the professionals who take my course: helping people to express themselves and feel heard without getting bogged down in the past. Some of my students understand this point; others really need to work at it.

    Empathy plays a big part in the transition from victim to problem solver. You need to listen to what victims say and to what they don't say. It will help you build trust so they feel comfortable talking about what they really want.

    You also need to identify with victims without isolating the other side, e.g. empathize with the other side and what they're going through by having to listen to all of this. When one person is rehashing his or her feelings, the other side may feell upset at the outpouring of emotion…fearing that it will derail the discussions or turn people against them. You can help prep them for this experience by setting the right expectations in the beginning about both sides getting the opportunity to be heard.

    Another way to avoid it is to transtion victims from the past through reframing and mutualizing needs and interests. More often than not, the people at the table have things in common. Tie issues raised to those things. Help them to identify with each other (if possible). And, make sure to tie a long, emotional discussion to the present and to the case at hand. It helps victims refocus and it lets the other side know there was a point to the whole thing.

    Sometimes I have defense attorneys tell me that they don't want to listen to (or expose their clients to) long emotional stories from victims. Some mediators try to shut those attorneys and defendants down by saying something like "well, you'll have to. It's what mediations about." Wrong answer. Maybe mediation is about talking, but NO they don't HAVE to do listen to anything.

    I take a different approach. I try to find out why they don't want to hear the victim's story. What are they afraid of? How do they think it will impact negotiations? Get them to acknowledge whether they see any merit in emotion at the table. They've obviously come to this conclusion for a reason, might as well find out why.

    I also ask the defense a "what if" question like "what if by listening to the victim's emotional story, they (the defense counsel and defendant) could get the case resolved today?" It's fun to watch their wheels turning at the possibilities.

    Matt Vititoe
    Attorney and Mediator

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