Shame is an essential pro-social force. Our experiences of shame are reflective of the fact that we have values and ideals, which in turn help us cooperate as human beings and live in community. Shame helps us care what others think and take responsibility, and is essential for constructive, collaborative, and loving relationships. However, shame, as with most life experiences, has many dimensions, some of which are not always helpful. In this article I am going to focus on how shame responses can exacerbate conflict and how mediators can help people experiencing shame work through their differences.
There isn’t the space in this article to explore in detail the genesis of shame. What is important to highlight however is that shame arises when we meet and relate to others, it is a relational phenomenon. Also, shame responses are developed during childhood and therefore are often well-embedded into our psyche and behaviour. Thirdly, shame is field (contextually) dependent, for example the written and unwritten cultural norms and rules of a particular, group, community, or society, are likely to play a part in any feelings of shame we may experience.
So, let’s put this in the context of conflict. To talk from my own personal experience, I am likely to experience shame if I get a message from the world around me that in some way matches internal beliefs I have of being bad, defective, unloveable. I will probably feel some humiliation, a kind of deeper sadness, an aloneness, mixed in with essence of anger and possibly rage; all-in-all, a heady cocktail!
When I feel shame, my first response is likely to be to withdraw from relationship, to isolate myself. In a complex interplay, this withdrawal first of all protects me from the messages I am receiving that chime with my internal sense of being unloveable, yet at the very same time increases my belief that I’m not enough, that I’m not worthy of the others attention. The other possible response is anger, directed towards the person I believe responsible for triggering my experiences of shame. These powerful inner forces and resultant behaviours fit with the established frame of “fight or flight”. When I feel shame, I am likely to fight back or move away from the other person.
I contend that all of us are conditioned to the norms of our culture is some shape or form. My experience in the UK is that often, being in conflict, is in itself “not OK”. Whether I am working as a mediator or a trainer I invariably say at the start of the session that difference and conflict is a natural and essential element of everyday life. In response, I usually find that mediation or course participants let out a huge breath or sigh of relief and noticeably relax. The shameful elephant in the room that can’t be talked about because it is bad… “conflict”….is actually not a monster at all, but simply an acceptable and welcome member of our everyday life.
In setting-up mediations I often find that participants are to some degree ambivalent about engaging in the process and facing the person they are in conflict with. This makes complete sense to me. I hypothesise that there may be a significant element of fear and often an underlying sense of shame in the relational predicament each person finds themselves in. When I have that first conversation with the participant concerned, my approach is simply to convey that “it’s OK”, not in a way that negates the strong feelings someone may have about how they have been treated by an individual or a group, but with a nuance that conveys, “you’re OK for feeling as you do”. In shame we can often dismiss our feelings, turn blame upon ourselves. As a mediator, a good step towards diluting shame is to convey to the person in conflict that you take them and their feelings seriously, to normalise their experience a little, accept perhaps what they may find hard to accept in themselves.
Our most primal shame patterns are usually formed during childhood in response to how we are parented. As we grow older shame will often arise in relationship where there is perhaps a particular power structure. We may more likely feel shame in response to an interaction with an authority figure for example. Therefore, as a mediator I work hard to be clear with people coming to mediation about my role and what I am and am not responsible for. I emphasise that I am not making assessments, deciding who’s right or wrong, or making judgements on the morality of their behaviour. What I want most of all is to create “space” for people to talk and share with each other thoughts and feelings that they have previously not felt able to. If they see me as a particular type of authority figure with particular judgements about the relationship then they are less likely to share with and in front of me, and therefore with the person or people they may be in conflict with. As a mediator I see myself as a conduit for creating permission to share beyond their shame.
In mediations I will also often name or share briefly my own experience of being in my own conflicts. I see this as possibly the most important understanding I have as a mediator: that I have been in relationships in the past that have been in conflict, am in relationships now that are in conflict, and will be in relationships in the future that are in conflict. I tread carefully so as not to detract from the focus of the process which is to support those concerned and their relationship(s), but say just enough to hopefully open a little the potential for the previously mentioned space to share.
In Brene Brown’s TED Talk (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=psN1DORYYV0) “Listening to Shame”, she emphasises the importance of empathy as an antidote to shame. As mediators we are taught the importance of being neutral and impartial, which I believe is the first and most important underlying principle of the work. However, it is important to highlight that impartiality and empathy are not mutually exclusive. As mediators we can support mediation participants to share their vulnerabilities and therefore, as Brown says, open up the possibility for creativity and change, by bringing empathy for each participant individually and their relationship.
Increasingly I think of compassion as an action I can take as a mediator. I’m sitting with participants in a mediation and I sense into my chest and heart, I push my shoulders back a little, my chest forwards, I sense into my throat and shoulders and actively try to access the energy of my own authentic compassion in respect of those I am sitting with. Accessing such empathy and compassion can help thaw shame responses that may be held by the mediation participants.
Of course, there is one further elephant that should be named, and that is our own potential for shame as mediators. I can and will feel shame in response sometimes to things that arise in the relationship between the mediation participants and I. My greatest support in these situations is to first of all arrive at the mediation feeling rested and in good health, secondly and linked to this, is to be paying good attention to my own experience during the mediation process, and thirdly to notice and ground myself in my breathing. With this third aspect in mind I will have both of my feet flat on the floor, sit upright in my chair whilst also paying attention to a softness in my shoulders, and notice the gentle movement of my stomach as I breathe. I will pay attention to my tone of voice and my body posture. Fourthly, if I am well grounded, I may wish to name my own feelings of shame with a participant(s) where I think it will help the process move forward. A willingness to show my own vulnerability can help those I am working with also be vulnerable.
In so many respects, shame is a life topic, but for the purpose of this article I want to briefly highlight a few further points. Firstly, to emphasise that shame is always a relational phenomenon, it happens between two or more people. This does not necessarily mean that both people will be feeling shame, but it does mean that it has arisen from something that has happened between both of you (as a side note, thinking about my own conflicts, I think the most challenging to work through have been those where both me and the other person has been experiencing strong shame responses). Further, shame is not always easy to identify, it can have an amorphous quality and can be difficult to clearly identify in oneself or in others. However, if something feels confusing or confused, if it seems like something is missing or something isn’t being said, you may want to consider if it relates to shame experiences held by one or more people in the conflict. Lastly, shame will arise and show in different ways between different groups of people and in different contexts.
Some brief antidotes to these issues is to name “shame”, and ask if such an experience may be involved in the dispute. A health warning here, to do this you need to have developed a good working alliance with those you are working with; it is common to feel shame about feeling shame. Asking people to tell the stories that lie behind their feelings can help bring them back into contact with each other and move past the shame they may be experiencing. Also, having an understanding of the wider contextual “rules” and prohibitions of a particular context or group can help you, help others, navigate their way through their relationship in such contexts. In addition, I will encourage those in conflict to talk from the “I”, e.g. “I feel….”, rather than “you did….”, and I am likely to avoid, or at least be very careful with, starting questions with “why”, which may trigger shame and hence cause people to shut down or fight back.
I have also found that laughter, humour, and a general lighter tone can provide respite where shame is encumbering two people in their relationship. Shame can have a heavy, sticky, quality, and to facilitate moments of a different lighter energy can help people shift perspective.
I hope this introduction to aspects of shame and its impact on relationship has provided useful reflection. Please feel free to get in touch should you wish to discuss. go-dialogue (www.go-dialogue.co.uk) specialises in the rehabilitation of relationship in a wide variety of contexts, in the workplace, in the home, in the wider community.
With thanks to the gestalt psychotherapy community for the in-depth thinking and writing on shame (inc. Lynne Jacobs, Gary Yontef, Gordon Wheeler, Robert Lee, Bob Resnick) and CMP Solutions (www.cmpsolutions.com) for the motivation to write this article. I also point you in the direction of Brene Brown’s TED Talk (previously cited), the films Shame, and Manchester by the Sea, for particular examples of shame (these films struck a chord with me and I would be interested to hear of films that stood out to you too), and the journal article: The Positive Side of Negative Emotion: The Role of Guilt and Shame in Coping with Interpersonal Conflict. The Journal of Conflict Resolution, 56(6) 1116-1138.