Category Archives: Relational ideology

Compassion as an innate human capacity

In the video below, Emma Seppala, Associate Director at the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education at Stanford University reviews some of the latest scientific research on compassion at the Empathy in Society Conference last October in London.

Among the major points she touches on are:

  • measuring the real life impact of compassion interventions on subsequent behaviour;
  • compassion as an evolutionary adaptive development;
  • the incompleteness of the economic model of agents informed by rational self-interest; and
  • applications of compassion development and interventions in the work place.
(Hat-tip: Dorothy Della Noce)

The Purpose of Marriage

Jane Smiley at the 2009 Texas Book Festival, A...

Jane Smiley at the 2009 Texas Book Festival, Austin, Texas, United States. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

You know what getting married is? It’s agreeing to taking this person who right now is at the top of his form, full of hopes and ideas, feeling good, looking good, wildly interested in you because you’re the same way, and sticking by him while he slowly disintegrates. And he does the same for you. You’re his responsibility now and he’s yours. If no one else will take care of him, you will. If everyone else rejects you, he won’t. What do you think love is? Going to bed all the time? -Jane Smiley, novelist (b.1949)


When worlds collide, or seeing conflict as a crisis in human interaction

Herzog, Paris Café, 1959, inkjet print. Collection of the artist, Courtesy of Equinox Gallery (Globe and Mail, online)

The starting point for the transformative model of mediation is an understanding of the nature of conflict as a crisis in human interaction. In this view, the crisis is characterized by two kinds of adverse impacts. First, in conflict each individual has a sense of her own diminished capacity to move past the situation. Second, each individual becomes more self-absorbed and, consequently, unable to see and hear the other person in an undistorted way. The transformative model then articulates how conversation, whether or not with an impartial third person, can foster the conditions within which people may move beyond their circumstances.

There is a poignant illustration of this power of conversation in Marsha Lederman’s feature article, “The collision: Fred Herzog, the Holocaust and me”, that appeared in The Globe and Mail on Saturday, May 5th, and online here. (Lederman describes Herzog “as arguably [Vancouver’s] most important — if for many years, obscure — visual documentarian.”)

Last fall, I had occasion to interview Herzog, who is 81, at his modest home on the west side of Vancouver. The book Fred Herzog: Photographs was being published, and it was an opportunity to talk about his life, his method, the impact of his late-in-life success.

The ‘collision’ or conflict occurs when Herzog, in response to a question, refers to the so-called Holocaust:

It’s a question about his early time in Toronto that leads to the Holocaust. We’re about 30 minutes into our conversation when I ask whether he, as a German, experienced any racism in postwar Toronto; I note that his employer – an importer of glass and china – was Jewish.

Herzog explains that George Zimmer, with whom he got along very well, had had a business in East Prussia before the war, a big furniture business, and that he must have sold it at a comparatively low price, given the times.

“He never complained to me about that,” said Herzog. “That marks him as an unusual person, because even now, many of the people I know, many doctors, are Jewish. And there isn’t one who spares me hearing about relatives who were, you know, treated badly during the war and the so-called Holocaust.”

My throat goes tight.

Read Lederman’s entire piece here and note how the conversations between Lederman and Herzog move for each of them through personal shock, reflection, and then openness to the other.

Listen to Herzog in a later conversation:

The reason I gave you the wrong answer to the Holocaust. … To begin with, when I grew up in Germany after the war, nobody ever talked about the Holocaust. Nobody. Not my boss, not the other employees. Nobody there ever talked about the Holocaust. It was actually a seamless denial. And it was only after I had left Germany, I think there were some trials in West Germany where the Holocaust problem was driven home to Germans in such a way that they could no longer ignore it. … I remember reading right after the war that there were six million Jews killed and I talked to people about that and most people said they had no idea. And I think on the other hand some people must have had an idea that bad things were happening but simply put their head in the sand.

And Lederman’s insight into what she has experienced:

After months of living with this, I’m surprised: I am able, I think, to see it all through Herzog’s battered lens.

I see his photography as the expression of a victim whose pain was not deemed valid in light of the atrocities of his countrymen and what others suffered; a young man who came to Canada and had to remain silent, but whose work speaks volumes.

How to argue with teenagers? Know when to stop!

Anthony E. Wolf

I’ve had occasion in the past to favourably cite psychologist Anthony E. Wolf, the parenting columnist at The Globe and Mail.  In this morning’s paper, he discusses what he calls the No. 1 day-to-day mistake parents of teens make: not withdrawing from the argument.

The problem is simple. With the great majority of teens, if they are not getting their way, anything that their mother or father says – anything – just pours fuel on the fire. They will argue and cajole and complain forever. (And I do mean, forever.) That is, unless the parent says, “I give up. You win. I’ve changed my mind.”
The greater wisdom is that once you take an unpopular stance, and if after a brief discussion, you haven’t changed your mind, it’s best to say what you have to say – and then nothing further.

He then sets out a few reasons why parents fail to heed this good sense and stop arguing.

1.  The compulsion to make the teen change her mind and see things the way the parent sees them.

That is not going to happen.

The obvious fallacy is that it is what you do – not what you say – that matters. They learn their persistent arguing bears fruit, or that it does not. That is the only lesson.

2.  Parents feel they can’t let their teens get away with backtalk.

The point of backtalk – the reason they [teenagers] do it – is that they’re mad they’re not getting their way, and they want to bully you into changing your mind. If you respond, their backtalk will have succeeded in keeping the argument going – and you will get more backtalk. Conversely, if there is no response, it renders the backtalk pointless.

3.  Seeing the world in terms of win/lose contests.

“I can’t let her get in the last word. I just can’t. She’ll win. That’s not right. I’m the parent.”


But when you disengage and they keep going, it does feel as though you’re the winner. At least it feels like you’re the parent.

Just Listen

Rachel Naomi Remen, M.D.

One of my patients told me that when she tried to tell her story people often interrupted to tell her that they once had something just like that happen to them. Subtly her pain became a story about themselves. Eventually she stopped talking to most people. It was just too lonely. We connect through listening. When we interrupt what someone is saying to let them know that we understand, we move the focus of attention to ourselves. When we listen, they know we care. Many people with cancer talk about the relief of having someone just listen.

I have learned to respond to someone crying by just listening. In the old days I used to reach for the tissues, until I realized that passing a person a tissue may be just another way to shut them down, to take them out of their experience of sadness and grief. Now I just listen. When they have cried all they need to cry, they find me there with them.

This simple thing has not been that easy to learn. It certainly went against everything I had been taught since I was very young. I thought people listened only because they were too timid to speak or did not know the answer. A loving silence often has far more power to heal and to connect than the most well-intentioned words.

Remen, R. N. (1997). Kitchen table wisdom. (pp. 368). Riverhead Trade.

Settling Disputes without Lawyers

Now that I have your attention, I must confess that the sub-head of the article in the of August 29th actually read, “Settling disputes without lawyers can save you money”.

The piece goes on to discuss various processes in ADR, alternative dispute resolution, in terms of  “a less expensive, less time-consuming, more private option to settle conflicts.”

The objective of mediation as an ADR process here is a negative one, to avoid expense, time, and abstract and generalized rules and procedures that may not fit individual circumstances.

Unfortunately, the ‘efficiency argument’ has become the principal driver for mediation, particularly in the context of court-connected mediation.  This thinking is now so prevalent that it has become received wisdom.  It was not always so.

Some 40 years ago, at the inception of mediation processes in community centres in North America, the unique benefit of mediation was seen in terms of its potential for re-orienting people in conflict back towards each other in order that they can decide whether and how to handle their own issues.

This distinct value of mediation is a driving force in those approaches that are relational and that focus on party choice and openness to other.

Whether or not to Forgive: A Matter of Choice

Jonathan Romain

Rabbi Jonathan Romain of Maidenhead Synagogue just west of London responded on 25 July in the pages of the Guardian to the question, “What is the point of forgiveness?”.

Among the important points Dr. Romain makes are the following:

  1.  Unless forgiveness is given voluntarily, it is meaningless.  “It is a moral tyranny to expect all those who have been hurt to forgive, when there may be valid reasons not to do so.”
  2. Forgiveness is conditional on the offending person “regret[ting] their words or actions, […] appreciat[ing] the damage they have caused and […] seek[ing] the forgiveness of those affected.”
  3. Forgiveness is based on relational ideology.
  4. Expressions of remorse, etc. can only be validated over time; hence, forgiveness in the present involves a degree of trust that the offending person is truly contrite and has changed their ways.
  5. Forgiveness does not free the wrongdoer from responsibility for their act.  “A wrongdoer may have established a degree of personal rapport with his/her victim, but is not free from the consequences and still has to face civil or criminal charges and penalties”, and
  6. Later generations or survivors cannot forgive on behalf of others.  “One can decide whether to grant or withhold forgiveness only for that which was done to oneself. It would be arrogant to speak on behalf of others. Their right to forgive died with them. Their forgiveness can no more be obtained than they can be brought back to life.”

Read the entire commentary here.

[H/T: normblog]