Grief: When Others Aren't Responsive
In the courses I teach about conflict, people show up with a lot of grief and hopelessness about conflict in their lives. The people who show up to these courses are often the people who are trying their best to engage in conflict with compassion and a genuine desire for change. But, when they show up (imperfectly as we all do), they are met with denial, attacks, rejection, refusal, avoidance, indifference, gaslighting, and misdirection. They say, “I went to them and communicated directly about what was going on, then they immediately turned it around on me like I was the problem.”Or, they say, “I get really anxious about bringing it up but I finally do and then they set a boundary or say I’m violating their boundaries and refuse to talk about it.” In counseling, I get this question more than any other question: What do I do if they won’t even show up for the conversation in good faith?
And I, as a facilitator and teacher feel my own grief and helplessness—unless we use coercive strategies against other people (which I don’t recommend), we can’t control whether or not or how someone else will show up for a conflict. For the type of person who genuinely wants to engage in meaningful, mutually beneficial, reciprocal, joyful, interdependent relationships—this can be exhausting. You might feel like you’re the only one trying. You might feel like other people don’t care. You might feel like why do I bother. You might find yourself seeking skills but actually those skills can’t change the other person’s lack of motivation, authenticity, or care.
Often the advice I give can feel like even more of a burden—to see things differently, do things differently, or just accept the loss. What that advice (listed below) is intended to do is to (a) release the other person from the position of total power, (2) see ourselves as agents of change rather than the subject of others’ whims, and (3) have permission to let go.
Here is what we can do, for our part:
1: Identify the conditions that are outside of the other person/group’s control.
Sometimes grief in a conflict arises because we see all of the control being in the other person’s hands. Shifting that perspective requires us to look at where the responsibility, control, or influence really lies with this other person (their decisions, behaviors, influence) and where does it lie somewhere else (the conditions)? For example, if someone is taking up a lot of time during meetings and this is causing problems in the organization—what part of that conflict is on them (how much time they talk), what part is on the organization (how are meetings facilitated), and what part is on us (for not saying something in real time). Or, for example, if we’re feeling taken advantage of in a relationship—what part of that is on the other person to change (by showing gratitude or doing their fair share) and what part is on us (to not go above and beyond, to be clear about what we won’t do).
Sometimes we come to a conflict empathizing fully with why someone does what they do or why they are the way they are (and maybe have empathy fatigue), but simultaneously see them as the only source of change—they could change but they choose not to and therefore it’s their “fault”. By doing this, our empathy is actually functioning more like sympathy: we’re feeling sorry for their circumstances, not understanding how those circumstances are creating a dynamic in which there are other opportunities for intervention where we have more power. If we understand the circumstances, we can identify other sources of intervention that don’t hinge entirely on the other person engaging with us in any particular way—if they decide not to engage or change, the circumstances can still change.
You might ask:
How does the culture contribute to this?
How does the structure, system, procedure contribute to this?
How have my or others’ responses/reactions in the past, furthered this pattern?
If they won’t change, where else could change happen?
2: De-center problem behavior, center strengths and positive contributions, when appropriate.
Often we start a conversation about conflict by centering the problem behavior in the other person, for example: “I need to tell you that you did this bad thing and it had this hurtful impact on me.” This immediately sets up the conversation where they are likely to be defensive and to want to avoid. Sometimes this is necessary—a person is being abusive, destructive, racist, etc—in which case their behavior is the center. Other times, their behavior or level of engagement is a piece in a bigger dynamic (see above).
We can usually approach a need for change by identifying how the other person can contribute to a solution, without identifying fault, blame, or cause. For example, “I’ve noticed in meetings that there are some people who don’t have a chance to speak, I wonder if we can work together so that people who are directly impacted by projects can have more time and prompting to speak. Would you be up for a brainstorm?”
By framing the other person as an essential contributor to a solution (which they are!), we’re seeing their control and influence as a strength that they can do something positive with, rather than a weakness that we are judging.
3: Front load the value, mattering, and importance of the other person, the relationship, or the shared space.
Similar to #2, we often dive right into problems but we don’t acknowledge why the other person’s involvement is so important to us. A huge reason that people avoid, deny, or block conflict is because of fear: fear of being judged, fear of loss in a relationship, fear of rejection, fear of failure.
And just like they are not responding out of fear, we want them to engage because we’re afraid of what happens or what it means if they don’t or if things don’t change. We want their love, validation, affection, or support because we care about them, need them, or value them. Or we need things to work out because the organization, family, social group is providing essential social needs. It can be really easy when we’re anxious or upset to forget to say: you matter to me, our relationship matters, I value your contributions, the reason I seem so upset is because I am fearful about losing you or fearful about what you think of me.
Whatever the case, expressing this upfront can help the other person see how showing up for this conversation matters and that they are valued. For example, we might say “I want to find a time to talk because our relationship is so important to me—I love the time we spend together and I want to make sure our relationship lasts.” Or, we might say, “I see you as a figure who has a lot of influence in the organization, I’m worried if things don’t change then the organization might fall apart.”
4: Release the other person of any of our misaligned expectations.
Part of our grief in a conflict is wanting, wishing, hoping someone will show up in a certain way, love us in a certain way, express to us in a certain way—but they don’t. There’s a perfect thing they could say, they don’t. There’s something they could care about—it doesn’t matter to them. They could see us in a certain way—they see us differently. In our minds we frame this as a specific kind of choice—one that conveys how much we matter to them or how valuable we are.
You might ask yourself:
How am I showing up expecting a specific response?
Why is that specific response so desirable to me?
How are my dashed expectations affecting the relationship?
How have they shown me who they are and what’s important to them, and I have not yet accepted that?
When someone tells me that something doesn’t matter to them and I show up expecting them to act like someone who cares about that thing, then I am going to feel like I’m running into a brick wall (“Please help me figure this out and have this two hour brainstorm with me” is met with grunts and silence). If I know it doesn’t matter to them and I show up just to get what I absolutely need without them having to invest a lot of energy, then I’ll probably walk away with something helpful (“I’ve come up with these four options that I think will work best, I just need X to move something forward” is met with a passive selection and signature). If I then engage in the things that matter to us both—we’re both more likely to have a better experience.
5: Ask directly why the other person is unwilling or unable to engage.
Often we make assumptions about why someone won’t engage with us in a certain way: they’re defensive, their avoidant, they don’t care, they’re self-important, etc. Sometimes we’re right and other times there’s actually something more going on there that we can work with. We might respond to their avoidance/silence or refusal by asking, “It seems like we’re not going to be able to talk about this; if that’s true, can you help me understand why/what’s going on for you?” They might say:
A: Truly does not have enough spoons (emotional, mental, physical, spiritual capacity).
Great follow up question: could I check in when things calm down, when might that be?
B: Not willing to use spoons.
Great follow up question: is this relationship valuable to you? If you’re not interested in putting in the time, does it make sense to not relate to each other in this way anymore?
C: Doesn’t see the unmet need, interest, or values misalignment as their responsibility (“not their problem/concern”).
Great follow up questions: If you were in my position, what would you do to address this? Where do you see the responsibility falling? In our relationship I thought we cared for each other in these ways, should I not count on you for that?
D: Has a fear of something being used against them or another risk.
Great follow up questions: Can I clarify my intentions and goals with you? Is there a venue/way of talking that would feel better?
E: Doesn’t believe you’re engaging in good faith / is suspicious of your intentions.
Great follow up questions: What does good faith look like for you? How can I show you that I’m in this for the reasons I say I am? How can we be accountable to each other?
6: If they still won’t engage, think about alternative ways to meet needs. What can we do next without their involvement?
The best outcome would have come from direct engagement and mutual solutions, but we can’t have that. So what are we going to do about it?
You might ask yourself:
Are there are other people or places where my/our needs or goals can be met?
Can I make any changes on my own/without this person, that will improve conditions?
Do I need to walk away from this relationship or situation to feel whole, free, or aligned with my purpose?
7: If appropriate, inform the other person of your next steps.
Some people are very against ultimatums—I’m not fully against them, but I do think they can be used as a tool of control and manipulation when poorly executed. Instead of an ultimatum (“If you do this then I’m leaving you!”), it can be appropriate at times to let people know our next steps if there will be a direct impact on them. For example, if we’ve decided that a relationship is no longer serving us, it’s important to say, “Hey, I’ve been trying to make things better but it isn’t working. I need to separate from this relationship. I wish you the best.” Or, “I’ve tried to make change in the organization but things haven’t improved, I’m going to start transitioning my responsibilities to someone else.”
The key to this not operating like a punishment or ultimatum is that the other person isn’t being asked to or forced to do anything. Rather, you are taking an action that is best for you and letting them know so that they can prepare and respond, with the intention of mitigating harm or hurt.
8: If confronted with a DARVO response that is escalating (increasingly attacking or blaming)....
DARVO is a form of gaslighting in which someone who has done harm responds by denying their actions/responsibility, attacking the other person and/or their credibility (subtly: “you’re too sensitive”; not subtly: “you’re a bad person”), and then reversing the victim/offender roles (“you’re to blame not me,” “you’re harming me by naming this harm”).
DARVO occurs on a spectrum from highly malicious with an intent to continue abuse, or an ignorant (but still harmful) defensive response that was learned from a culture where taking responsibility is often punished very harshly. The only real way to respond to this approach—which is incredibly common and based in fear of being shamed, judged, punished, held accountable, seen in a certain way—is to be confident in what happened from your perspective, clear about the impacts this had on you, clear about the other person’s responsibility (and your own if you have any part), and then decide for yourself what to do (see above). Once someone has taken a DARVO-type approach, they’re unlikely to engage in a mutual conversation.
If you decide to continue to engage them…
If you have text messages, emails, voice memos, or anything else that you can use as evidence of what happened—share that with them directly if it feels safe to do so. You can do this as a way to help them understand, or as a way to “prove” to those who support them that they are misconstruing things. If you don’t have material proof, writing out the timeline of your experience is just as meaningful.
Let them know that you are not going to blame yourself or take their part of the blame—that you are sure of what you read/saw/heard/experienced and the impacts on you were real. By being sure of yourself, you take their power—which lies in their ability to influence you into self-blame, self-doubt, and ultimately backing down. If you’re not feeling sure, check in with a more reliable/trustworthy friend and ask them how they’re interpreting the situation. They should be someone who has strong critical thinking skills and isn’t BFFs with the other person.
If appropriate (the relationship is otherwise good, this doesn’t seem malicious it’s purely reactivity and fear), you can identify with their fears but let them know that while they might be scared, uncomfortable, or experiencing loss upon hearing your concerns, that doesn’t make them the victim. In fact, there may be no victim in the situation at all—just two people trying to solve a problem to prevent harm or make things better.
If you have done something that has caused harm accidentally or as a punishment, it may help to take ownership of that. But return to the original concern—their part—that still needs to be addressed.
It’s very important to weigh the risks and consequences of responding to an occurrence of DARVO—if you think someone intends to hurt, attack, or continue abuse, you might weigh lots of options:
leaving the relationship/situation,
seeking support for harm done from another source,
raising awareness of this dynamic in the community,
…brainstorm other options that don’t engage directly with the person doing harm in a way that would allow them to gain power or control.
9: Finally, a hard piece of self-reflection: What is my part in the pattern of people not responding to me in conflict, and when can I let go?
If we find that we are always in a position to be engaging others in conflict who are unresponsive, there may be a part of that dynamic that belongs to us/that we are responsible for.
You might ask yourself, do I have a tendency to…:
…hold others to such high standards that they often fall short, resulting in disappointments that I put on their shoulders?
…expect people to respond, react, or engage in the way that I would, even though they are different from me?
…feel deeply impacted by others’ choices, even when I am not directly involved in the consequences of those choices?
…expect people to do things that prioritize or anticipate my interests, without me having to speak up for myself?
…expect everyone to be treated exactly the same for things to be fair, even though we have different needs?
…feel personally betrayed when others’ priorities or what matters to them doesn’t align with what I think is important?
…hold a grudge about people’s mistakes as if they were intentional or malicious, even when they express apology and have tried to change?
…ask people to show up very intensely for concerns, incidents, or occurrences that could be quickly resolved if I let go of some control?
…obscure people’s positive contributions and focus on their failures or disappointments?
If yes to any of these, are there any incidents where you could let go and resolve the issue/concern on your own?
Opportunities to Learn + Act
Today!! Michigan Abolition and Prisoner Solidarity (MAPS) is asking everyone to call 906-496-2275 then 0, to support Gil Morales. More info at facebook.com/michiganabolition
Script: “I'm calling to demand the release of inmate Gilbert Morales (#186641) from administrative segregation. I also wish to complain about a corrections officer employed at your facility. Officer McKinley has been physically and verbally abusive against Mr. Morales. Now, in retaliation for standing up for his humanity, Mr. Morales has been put in solitary confinement. McKinley's behavior is in violation of MDOC's own definition of 'humane treatment of individuals' as outlined in the employee handbook. I demand that Mr. Morales be immediately released from solitary confinement, and that this officer be removed from duty and investigated for violating MDOC policy.”
This Wednesday, February 16 at 7pm EST some fabulous organizers in my community are holding a public forum on unarmed non-police response! Register at bit.ly/crosforum
Also this Wednesday, February 16, at 8 - 10 EST Dean Spade is hosting a webinar called Dismantling the Cycle of Romance. Register here.
Read the report, Cruel by Design: Voices of Resistance From Immigration Detention — firsthand accounts of people detained by ICE. http://bit.ly/ICE_CruelByDesign
Watch this video from Critical Resistance, Advice to New Abolitionists
Schedule of Upcoming Courses
Conflict Skills 1: A Responsive Approach to Conflict
Sliding Scale: $6 - $200
A 4-session course for conflict beginners who would like to gain insight and skill for conflict with friends, partners, family, colleagues, comrades, and acquaintances. The course takes an anti-oppressive approach to conflict, provides a structured process for moving conflicts forward, practical techniques for making decisions that lead to mutual benefit, and how to address power dynamics.
March 20 - April 10, 2022 (4 sessions)
Weekly on Sundays 12pm EST - 2pm EST
Conflict Skills 2: Communication in Conflict
Sliding Scale: $4 - $120
A two session course for conflict beginners who would like to gain insight and skill to listen deeply and communicate in ways that lead to understanding. The course takes an anti-oppressive approach to communication that subverts control, coercion, and abuse.
February 19 - February 26, 2022 (2 sessions)
2 Saturdays 1pm EST - 3pm EST
Register here ***Registration closing soon***
April 13 & April 14 (2 sessions)
Wednesday & Thursday, 5pm EST - 7pm EST
Conflict Skills 3: Anti-Oppressive Approaches to (De)Escalation
A single session to explore escalation and de-escalation through an anti-oppressive lens, to understand when, how, and why we might choose to escalate or de-escalate a conflict. Participants will have the opportunity to gain techniques for both escalating and de-escalating interpersonal and community conflicts.
Wednesday, April 27, 2022 (1 session)
5pm - 8pm EST
For more information about DARVO (Deny, Attack, Reverse-Victim-Offender), a particular dynamic that occurs across differential power click here.
Thank you for posting this, the timing is almost sacred! I have been struggling with letting go of old friends, colleagues and this post was much needed. <3