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Small Caring Actions to Help Ease the Suffering in Conflict

Conflict and suffering are confederates working in painful alliance, each feeding the other as if to ensure its own continued existence. If I turn away from the suffering in conflict, I deny a part of my clients’ experience. If I try to fix suffering, I assume a task that is not really mine to shoulder. Here’s one way I’ve found it helpful to think about, respond to, and help ease suffering.

There are days that the suffering I see in my work weighs heavily:

I recall resting my head on my car’s steering wheel and sobbing for minutes on end after a termination of parental rights mediation years ago, a case where there had been so much suffering in the mediation room that my shoulder was still damp from a mother’s tears.

I recall the suffering of a woman in a workplace mediation as she revealed to her office mates about the ways domestic violence at home had made it difficult to do the physical parts of her job sometimes.

I recall the crushed and horrified expressions of a teenage son and daughter when their aunt pointed across the table to them and said, less than three minutes into a mediation related to their deceased mother’s estate, “If ever there was a case for abortion, those two are it.”

And there are days the suffering I see is less intense, less raw, but no less important: The suffering of shame for having acted badly for a few minutes. The suffering of ongoing tension and ugliness that greets a couple as they return home from work each day. The suffering from an insult that cuts like a knife’s edge during an argument.

It is not possible to mediate, either informally or professionally, without being in the presence of suffering. I don’t want suffering to overwhelm me, nor do I want to fight it or ignore it, as though only certain portions of my clients’ conflict matter.

But I do want to ease suffering to the degree any mediator can; it is part of what calls me to this work. I want to give suffering my loving attention, even when I don’t really have a way to make it dissolve. To do this, I have to turn toward it.

I am very drawn to a phrase used by physicians Ronald Epstein and Anthony Back in their article, A Piece of My Mind: Responding to Suffering: Small caring actions.

Like mediators, physicians can address only a portion of human suffering through diagnosis and treatment alone. Epstein and Back ask physicians not to withdraw from big or persistent suffering when they feel helpless to assuage it. Rather, they say, physicians should turn toward the suffering:

Turning toward means recognizing suffering, becoming curious about the patient’s experience, and intentionally becoming more present and engaged. Recognizing suffering may not be straightforward; suffering often manifests as indirect emotional expressions, inconsistencies in patients’ narratives, or discomfort within clinicians themselves — a momentary awareness that something is not quite right even before they can characterize why. Turning toward requires us to cultivate a permeability to the patient’s experience and to pay attention to our own experience as we enter the patient’s world.

I like this notion of permeability to another’s experience; it narrows the divide between them and me. “Turning toward,” Epstein and Back tell us, is about being emotionally available and intentionally attending to another’s experience:

Here, loyalty, honesty, shared humanness, non-abandonment — and even love — are expressed through small caring actions: The extra minute at the bedside, the call to a worried relative, the choice of words and gestures.

The idea of “small caring actions” feels right to me. Small caring actions are human-scale instead of hero-scale, focusing me on small gestures instead of grandiose acts of rescue. Small gestures put the other person at the center of my attention, while grandiose acts of rescue distract me from them and put me at the center of attention.

Small caring actions help me circumvent helplessness because I can always muster a kind word, a few more minutes of undiluted attention, a gentle beckoning to go on, say more. Instead of feeling powerless because I cannot fix the suffering, I feel the power that comes from caring and doing something simple in response.


Tammy Lenski

Dr. Tammy Lenski helps individuals, pairs, teams, and audiences navigate disagreement better, address friction, and build alignment. Her current work centers on creating the conditions for robust collaboration and sound decisions while fostering resilient personal and professional relationships. Her conflict resolution podcast and blog, Disagree Better, are available at… MORE >

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