Where vengefulness undermines relationships, redemption makes space for a communal spirit. To redeem a relationship requires you to believe in the possibility of reconnection, making amends, and restoring positive bonds. But redemption is more of a mindset than a skill. It is characterized by courage to recognize your insecurities, compassion for others’ suffering, and moral determination to build better relations. The potential for redemption resides within everyone. Here are concrete ways to help yourself access it.
1. Summon the courage to look inward. At an international conference some years ago, I spoke with a top political negotiator in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. As we explored some of the sensitive issues surrounding the conflict, his cheeks reddened, his arms flailed, and the cadence of his speech accelerated. As I watched this display I finally asked him, “Do you think emotions are impacting you in the conflict?” He bristled and replied, “Absolutely not!” It was a clear case of refusal to look inward. On some level his analysis was right — structural factors were major causes of the conflict in question — but within this outwardly rational problem he and the other stakeholders were at an emotional standstill. It takes courage to objectively examine our fears and insecurities in order to open the door to redemption.
2. Feel compassion for others’ suffering. You may not agree with the other party’s beliefs or actions, and you may even be disgusted by their words or deeds. But remember, they are human, and in an emotionally charged conflict, you can be certain that they too are suffering. Being sensitive to their anguish is the single best way to restore positive relations. In a state of compassion, you empathize with another ’s suffering and feel the desire to relieve it. The Buddha saw compassion as “that which makes the heart of the good move at the pain of others.”
The Latin roots of “compassion” mean “to suffer with.” Compassion emotionally moves us to action. While the capacity for compassion lies within each of us, the challenge is to evoke it. But how can you feel concern for someone who has intentionally hurt you? For starters, remember that feeling compassion for someone does not preclude your seeking justice for any wrongdoing he or she might have done. Second, inquire into the other ’s suffering. You might ask, “How has this conflict personally affected you?” Listen not to defend, but to understand. Third, imagine stepping into the other person’s situation—not just their shoes—and identify with their suffering. Recently I flew from Boston to Chicago, and several rows behind me a four-year-old girl wailed continuously. Fellow passengers and I shared sympathetic glances, yet there was little we could do but bear it. Then it suddenly occurred to me that I was viewing this girl as a tribal outsider, an object to which I felt opposed. I decided to imagine that she was a part of my own family, and soon my annoyance turned to compassion. I walked down the aisle and tried to distract her with a few clownish faces. Her crying stopped for a few minutes, and her mother looked up in appreciation. A fourth way to evoke compassion is to build even a trivial emotional connection. Pairs of students in a laboratory experiment who sat across from each other and merely tapped their fingers in synchrony to musical tones were 31 percent more likely to volunteer to help their partner in a tedious forty-five-minute follow-up task than those subjects in pairs who did not tap fingers in synchrony to the music. The synchronized tappers spent on average seven minutes helping, while the asynchronous tappers spent only one.