In Brene Brown's short animated video about what empathy looks like in action, the "helpful" giraffe is consistently offering the "positives" to help counteract the sadness being expressed by the fox. The fox says that "he's getting a divorce". The giraffe responds, "at least you are married.". Not helpful and not empathetic.
When I came across an article in The Guardian online titled "Don't Insist on Being Positive -- Allowing Negative Emotions Has Much to Teach Us" (by Whitney Goodman), it resonated with me. As a mediator, I've noticed that when people in conflict start to get upset, mad, even heatedly passionate, they are being real and true to what they are feeling. While we want to create a respectful place for constructive conversations that build understanding and resolution, sometimes we need to express the real negative crap we are dealing with. It can be uncomfortable for everyone, including the person expressing the negative emotions, but it is also powerful in creating a path forward that honors truly what the needs are of the individual. When somebody is in pain and feeling negative emotions, such as a loss of a marriage, an empathic response is to just be there with that person, to let them know you are there and will remain there even during this discomfort.
The article references "toxic positivity" which has us programmed to believe that optimism is always best. A parallel in the conflict management world is avoidance and accommodation style of conflict responses. Accommodators are viewed as "yes" people who agree with others. Sometimes they are overly optimistic in their thinking that they will go along to get along. Many accommodators are often disappointed and surprised when no one ever actually shows concern or interest in what their needs and solutions are. This false sense of optimism leads accommodators to resentment and sabotage when others neglect to show empathy and interest in them.
The article further talks about how negative emotions are helpful. "Sadness" can be a "problem-solving emotion". How? "Sadness improves attention to detail, increases perseverance, promotes generosity and make us more grateful for what we've got." Further,"It's the emotion that helps us connect to others."
The challenge for us is that we have not been taught to effectively manage conflict and negative emotions. It feels unfamiliar and unsafe.
I attended a Trauma Informed mediation workshop at the 2023 ACR Conference. Mediators are learning both the value and need to lean in to negative emotions, recognizing that many of these feelings come from trauma that we carry. Creating a safe and trusting relationship with a conflict resolution professional, whether a mediator, facilitator or coach, is critical and includes holding space for negative emotions. As a mediator, I am actively building my own understanding of my relationship with negative emotions and trauma. My role is to be neutral and unbiased, but I am a human and find deep value in connecting empathically and humbly with my clients.
What's your relationship with negative emotions? How do they appear and how do they prevent you from fully experiencing empathy and resolution?
Brene Brown's Empathy Video