Empathy and Powerlessness by Gary Friedman

I recently read a report in the New York Times of  a neuro-science experiment which confirmed that people who experience being powerful are less empathetic than those who are not.  I’m not sure I believe the study, which was based on measuring brain impulses when people observed others squeezing a rubber ball, or something like that.  In any event, it got me to thinking that in our training of mediators and others who help people in conflict, that it’s a good thing for the professional to feel powerless.

In fact, many of the people we train are used to exercising a significant amount of power in their personal and professional lives.  Many of us like to be in control and that often comes out as exerting pressure, or at least gentle persuasion, over our clients and other professionals.  This idea of choosing to be powerless is likely to hit a nerve in those of us used to having our way and even being appreciated for it.

It is a radical idea that we take on this stance of powerlessness.  By powerlessness, we don’t mean that we are supposed to sit there like lumps of clay feeling helpless.  What we want to do is to be empathetic as a way of validating and empowering the parties to step forward and chart their life direction through the conflict.  If the study has any validity, we know that once we have the impulse to tell people what to do or try to push, manipulate, wheedle or cajole them in the direction that makes sense to us, if we act in any of those ways, we are undermining the parties.  And by the way, we are less empathetic. Since it is literally true that unless the parties make an agreement there will be no result in mediation, it makes sense that we experience ourselves as powerless to decide for the parties.  What, then, can we do?  If the study is correct, or even if it isn’t, our job is to be empathetic toward the parties with the hope that empathy will be contagious.  That is our primary skill and that is what makes a difference.

What’s the problem with thinking that our goal should be to experience powerlessness, especially if it leads to empathy?  Well, we don’t want to think of ourselves or other people to see us as wimps.  But we’re not wimps, because it takes so much courage and skill to make the intellectual and emotional effort to fully enter the lives of the people we’re trying to help.  So let’s hear it for powerlessness, but we might not want to put it on our websites or professional cards, “Experts in Powerlessness,” just yet. Not until the study catches on.