Victimology 101 – Helping the Victim in Conflict Resolution

How to Help the Victim

It is a fact that in many conflict resolution settings, such as mediations or settlement conferences, you may run into some people who are stuck in a sort of victim mentality. Regardless of the nature of the experience (from the most horrific accident to the merely inconvenient) they might be lost in the victim paradigm.

What does this mean? It means that they either can’t or won’t advance onward from the victim mentality. Additionally, they may be trying to use the victimhood (either 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. How do you navigate a difficult situation such as this?

First Things First: Distinguishing Between Sympathy and Empathy

Sympathy occurs when one shows sadness or regret, commiseration, for another’s position or experience. You can recognize that someone has gone through a painful experience and you feel badly for that person.

Empathy, however, activates through your intellectual identification of another’s experiences without commiseration. Rather than just listening to a victim and feeling bad for them, you can understand and even share the feelings of someone else.

“Sometimes all a person wants is an empathetic ear; all he or she needs is to talk it out. Just offering a listening ear and an understanding heart for his or her suffering can be a big comfort.”
― Roy T. Bennett

The key to interacting with someone who is in victim mode is to first take an empathetic stand with them. They must know that you truly understand and are concerned about their experiences.

Ways of Showing Empathy

The key to expressing empathy is to listen very carefully to what the person is saying and then acknowledge the experience and the pain (if appropriate). Use the following tips to help you empathize with the victim and to show that you understand their situation:

    • Paraphrase: In your own words, re-state what you’ve been told. Don’t be parrot-like but rather be genuine in a sincere, meaningful way.
    • Ask Questions: Asking relevant questions is a good way to show that you’re not only listening but paying close attention to the victim. (What was it like? How did he deal with it? How is he coping now?)
    • Maintain Positive Body Language: Maintaining eye contact and continuing to face the victim as they talk can help assure them that you’re really paying attention and that you care about their circumstances. If you’re fidgeting or looking away, they might think that you don’t care or aren’t listening.

It is critical to carve out sufficient time for this empathic dialogue. The length of time needed will depend upon the nature of the person and his circumstances. Therefore, make sure you allow sufficient time to establish empathy and make sure the victim understands that you have empathy for them.

Moving On: Focus on the Present

People who are suffering from “victimhood” are stuck in the past. Generally speaking, they are not fully present nor connected to the here and now.

Focusing on the present can help both parties to reach a resolution.

I realize this might sound cold, but from the standpoint of conflict resolution and negotiations, you simply can’t 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 here and now.

I have found that most people who are real victims want their losses to be acknowledged and want your empathy. And, in very real ways, they really do want to move on as such a thing is possible.

In contrast, those who are consciously or unconsciously using their victimhood for purposes of negotiation want to stay in the past as much as possible. They want to keep the focus on themselves and their misfortunes. 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 stubborn people who are using their victimhood to further their own agenda (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.

And we can only engage in such exploration in the present moment as the past cannot be changed. The present transcends the past as it relates to reaching an accord and unless both parties are willing to negotiate in the present, no resolution will be reached.

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  1. 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

  2. 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!

  3. 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.

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