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Revenge as a Learning Experience

PGP Mediation
by Phyllis G. Pollack

No doubt, at some point in your life, you have wanted to take revenge against someone who “did you wrong”. It may have been a casual remark that did not sit well with you or an action someone took that upset you greatly or perhaps someone “threw you under the bus” to further her own goals.

What should you do? Seek the revenge or use it as a learning experience?

A New York Times article by Caroline Cox entitled, “Ever Wanted to Get Revenge? Try This Instead” (July 19, 2018) discusses the motivations behind seeking revenge and the research on it.

While the researchers agree that “…revenge is a bona fide motivator” (Id.), it can be both healthy and not so healthy to pursue it. (Id.)  The good thing about revenge is that it is often short-lived. The bad thing is that it often makes it much harder to get over the incident causing it. (Id.) Unwittingly, seeking revenge or retribution will keep you in the past, tying you back to the person who caused the pain. It does not allow you to move forward and focus on something else. (Id.)

In short, while the emotion itself is neither bad or good, it is how we cope with it that becomes good or bad. Do we want to be tied to the past and the person who caused the pain? Or do we want to use the situation to orient ourselves to the future? As Dr. Erin Engle, clinical director of Psychiatry Specialty Services at Columbia University Medical Center notes:

Think of it this way: You could use a feeling of envy to examine whether or not it illuminates what you value and prioritize, or you could spend time dwelling, ruminating and calculating a plan to hurt someone in an attempt to quash the feeling. Which seems more likely to be ineffective?

According to Dr. Engle, it’s the latter.

“Some of the most important political movements of our time probably started in anger,” she said. The catalyst lies in making meaning of a feeling like anger and channeling it into advocacy, for example.

It’s not about trying to ignore negative feelings entirely, which studies show isn’t effective anyway. Rather, it’s a choice between focusing on the transgressor and making sure they pay, or deciding that the 17th-century English poet and orator George Herbert was right: Living well is the best revenge. (Id.)

I found this article interesting because often, lawsuits are about revenge and going to mediation is about looking forward. People will sue because they believe they were wronged in some way by another. They seek revenge, or payback.  The lawsuit will force them to dwell in the past, looking at every fact under a microscope for any and all clues. And then they go to mediation where the mediator will cajole them to look forward. How can the parties resolve this so that the dispute ends, and everyone can move on with their lives, focusing on what is more important?

As Dr.  Engle notes, (and many mediators attempt to have the parties do), the better way to handle the situation is to, indeed, look at the facts under a microscope for “… finding the root cause of that feeling [revenge] and either using it as a learning experience or warning flag as we move forward to something better.” (Id.) In short, to move forwards, and not backwards, in the resolution process.

Just think how successful a mediation would be if the parties approached it, not seeking revenge or retribution but to examine exactly what went wrong, why and how to fix it. That is, as a learning experience or as a red flag. It certainly would make my job a lot easier.

… Just something to think about.


Phyllis Pollack

Phyllis Pollack with PGP Mediation uses a facilitative, interest-based approach. Her preferred mediation style is facilitative in the belief that the best and most durable resolutions are those achieved by the parties themselves. The parties generally know the business issues and priorities, personalities and obstacles to a successful resolution as… MORE >

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