I was talking to a friend of mine recently about conflict and how people often choose to deal with confrontation and disagreement by offering a non-apology – usually a version of I’m sorry you feel that way.
I’ve written about this before, so anyone who follows my articles and social feeds will know my thoughts on the importance of us somehow (no matter how painful it can feel) accepting responsibility for the way we might make another person feel. It’s not easy but it’s so healing when you can hear each other.
The friend I was speaking to – we’ll call him Steve – told me a story.
Nearly 40 years ago Steve’s maternal grandfather was diagnosed with terminal kidney cancer.
As the end neared, Steve’s parents left their 17-year-old son to look after the house and the family dog and travelled to help nurse his grandad.
Two days later, in the middle of the night, Steve suddenly woke up, aware of a heavy weight at the end of the bed. At first, he thought the dog had somehow managed to get into the room and onto the bed, but when he sat up to send the dog out, he was met by the sight of his grandfather, sitting at the end of the bed, looking at him.
Steve says he felt no apprehension or fear. He says he remembers trying to work out how his grandad had got there, which totally confused him because it was two in the morning and it made no sense. He could feel his grandad’s weight, could see the detail of his face.
He says he remembers hearing his grandfather speak four words – “It’s all okay now” (or perhaps he imagined it; he can’t be sure which) and the next thing he knew it was morning.
He immediately rang his grandmother to be told news that, deep down, he already knew.
His grandfather had died in the night. The death certificate gave the time of death as 2am.
When he told me this story, Steve said that what was most interesting about the encounter was that he found peace in it – that, in some way he still doesn’t understand even after all these years, one of them had acknowledged his grandfather’s life by making a point of saying goodbye.
He learned later on from a psychic he was interviewing for a newspaper article that it was common for spirits to seek validation for their existence from those left behind.
Now, it’s worth saying at this stage that Steve isn’t really inclined to the woo-woo side of life (or death, for that matter).
But the point he was making was that that moment of acknowledgement he experienced was also the permission he needed to be at peace and move on without regrets or sadness.
And he drew an interesting parallel with the non-apology, saying he’d told me the story of his grandad because just as acknowledgement is part of the process of letting go of grief (or of allowing a spirit to move on, if that’s part of your belief system), acknowledgement is also critical in being able to be at peace with conflict.
How we deal with conflict is important. Let’s go back to the non-apology for a moment.
The important thing to remember is that the problem with the non-apology and the problem with conflict is that generally-speaking neither one acknowledges how you feel.
There is no room within I’m sorry you feel that way to acknowledge that the person is responsible – either in whole or in part – for making you feel the way you do. It doesn’t acknowledge your pain or that you have been heard.
And when we feel we haven’t been heard, we get angry and with anger comes conflict. And so it goes on, a vicious circle of emotional malaise.
That’s because the unwritten and unsaid part of ‘I’m sorry you feel that way’ is ‘but it’s nothing to do with me’.
So why is acknowledgement so important? Well, in very simple terms acknowledgement is absolutely essential to healing. Nothing – absolutely nothing – can heal without it.
When we are in emotional pain, we need our feelings to be validated. It is not essential for us to be in the right to be able to heal, but to be able to agree to disagree, or to admit we’re wrong? Yes, to be able to do that we absolutely need people to acknowledge the part they have played in what we feel.
Failure to acknowledge is at the root of every feud, every conflict and every breakdown in relationships – personal, business and political – throughout history. Without exception. Every. Single. One.
So, when you fail to acknowledge how you impact on someone else, what you are essentially doing is placing yourself into conflict with them.
Even in the last year we can see the explosive impact of what happens when acknowledgement is missing.
The death of George Floyd at the hands of a police officer earlier in the year underlined a total failure of the global political establishment to acknowledge and respond to systemic racism within society.
The Black Lives Matter movement is not about George Floyd’s death. It is about generations of BAME people’s first hand experiences of racism not being heard or acknowledged.
And every person who counters Black lives matter with Every life matters just perpetuates the problem, because it’s a response that fundamentally fails to acknowledge the simple premise that Black lives can’t matter until every life matters and, worse, fails to acknowledge the responsibility we all have for the society we have created.
I say again, healing cannot happen until there is acknowledgement.
Elsewhere this year, the government has been rightly taken to task over its handling of its response to the pandemic with growing calls for the restrictions we face to be lifted.
Why are people angry about being in lockdown? It’s not because they’re selfish. It’s not because they’re unhappy about not being able to go out and get pissed with their mates at the pub on a Friday night, or not being able to go and watch Arsenal play or not being able to go to the cinema.
They are rebelling – emotionally if not actually – because the restrictions are causing real suffering by hobbling businesses, destroying mental health, stripping away financial security, exacerbating poverty and homelessness and denying vital healthcare.
They are angry because that pain is criminally unacknowledged by a government that is hell-bent on pursuing its own ends on the basis of advice it receives from the narrowest possible community of scientific expertise. Many other experts are up in arms and campaigning vigorously in opposition.
If you want to know why therapy is so healing, it’s because what takes place in a therapist’s consulting room is very often the first time in that person’s life that they have truly been heard and acknowledged.
Acknowledgement is so important that the outcome of the conflict – whether we ‘win’ or ‘lose’ is often of secondary importance. The fact we have been acknowledged is enough to defuse the conflict completely and render it trivial.
It’s important, too, to understand it’s also entirely possible to be wrong and reasonable, just as it is possible to be right and unreasonable.
Acknowledgement validates us to the point where we don’t necessarily need to be proven right or proven wrong. Lack of acknowledgement fuels anger which, in turn, fuels conflict and prevents healing.
Whatever else happens in the next few months, one thing is certain – we have to find a way to acknowledge each other so we can all heal from what has happened in the past year. If we don’t, then 2021 will have the power to make 2020 look like a horrifically crazy but much-loved aunt.