Who’s responsible? Reflections on co-owning responsibility in relationships

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This article has been in my mind for a while. June and July were busy with mediations, and August has been a time to refuel through time spent with loved and loving others. The emerging theme over the past 6 months has been “responsibility”. I am going to write about responsibility not only through the lens of conflict transformation, but also with a wider perspective in mind.

Throughout my counselling and psychotherapy trainings over the past 16 years one of the themes that has stood out is an appetite and willingness amongst trainees to reflect and ask the question, what is my part in this? In its mutuality, I have found this process wonderfully reassuring and heartening. When a relationship has been difficult with a colleague who also works or trains in this sector I have found myself being able to own more of my responsibility for the challenges in the relationship, knowing that the other is doing similar. There can often be an implicit understanding that to do the work we are training to do we must both be prepared to hold a sense of joint responsibility for the relationship. There is a grounding, a reassurance that one person is not going to become the scapegoat. We can grow against and in relation to the presence of the other and the co-ownership of the responsibility.

When I discuss responsibility in the context of difference or conflict between two people I think of three aspects, the two individuals concerned, and the relationship. At times, the term responsibility can show up as one person taking responsibility for another, or at least an imbalance in the holding of responsibility in the relationship. This imbalance can distort a relationship and lead to repeated patterns of discord. Part of what empowers us in the world is the potential to have agency and choice in response to the world around us. However, as we take responsibility for the other, we may undermine that person’s agency, even when they may appear to be open to, or even eliciting the other to take some control over their life. Equally when life feels overwhelming or we are faced by challenges that we can’t see a way around we may say “what can I do?” and abdicate ourselves from responsibility, squarely seeing the problem as lying with the other person.

In the field of conflict resolution and the attendant world of mediation, one of the things we do as mediators is implicitly or explicitly encourage the people involved to take responsibility for their part in the difference that is being experienced. Often the term responsibility has come to be closely associated with blame and punishment. Because of this it can be a heavy burden to bear, one that is turned away from, or carried alone.

What I am suggesting here is that quality mediation practice reframes responsibility. As the mediator asks someone to open up about their part of the story and gently probes with questions such as….

“what would the relationship look like it if was working well?”
“what might your contribution be to creating a better working environment?”
or if you have a good working alliance with the participant and it fits, “what’s your part in this?”

……we are encouraging them to own and occupy their place as an adult who is responsible with agency and power in the world. We re-define responsibility as something that liberates, rather than inhibits.

Equally I am appealing to the wider audience beyond the mediation and conflict transformation world to ask the question, “what is my responsibility?”, as you sit in relationship with others. To regularly reflect on this question can become a practice that positions responsibility at the heart of your relationships. Of course, as we ask this of ourselves, it is likely we will need to ask the question of others too, what do you see as your responsibility? Do you share an understanding of what your individual and joint responsibilities are?

As I make the points I do in this article I have in mind everyday adult relationships between colleagues, friends, family, spouses. I add that as with any subject there are nuances and layers. The further we might look into relationships that may hold deeper and more profound underlying repetitive power imbalances the discussion becomes more complex. However, the end goal is the same, a move towards a place where we all own responsibility for our area of influence. In doing so we all edge a little further forward to living empowered lives.

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