Let’s imagine two people (a couple perhaps) in a relationship. They have had a negative experience with each other recently, one that could be called a conflict, which revealed that they have a big difference between them in how they have interpreted and experienced the situation and they don’t agree on the story to explain it.

Each person has an inner experience that involves feelings in the body and constructions of a story in the mind. The feelings are sensations, both physical and mental, that signal that something is threatening to the self or not right between the two people in some way. The negative feelings reveal that the person has had unmet needs in this interaction. The constructed story is the person’s attempt to make sense of those feelings inside and make sense of the other person’s behavior. The chief purpose of the story formation is less about composing The Truth of the situation, and more about protecting the self.

The inner feelings one has and the unmet needs beneath those are incontestable. Each person is the only person who can look inside and say with authority what is being felt there. No one else can see better than that person. The needs beneath are universally shared by all humans, and when a need is unmet in some interaction, the same general feelings will be experienced by anyone. So if one person has feelings that reveal an unmet need, it is that person’s experience of the feelings is the necessary proof that their need was not met. The person is the authority on what they have felt and needed in the situation, and maintaining this authority is critical to the well-being of the self.

What is contestable is the part of the story that tries to explain what the other person has done and why. Neither person is the authority on the other person’s motives and intentions. Relinquishing authority to judge the other person’s inner experience is where the opportunity for reconciliation lies.

Photo by Genevieve Perron-Migneron on Unsplash

A very helpful approach to reconciliation is where those two people can come together, possibly with the help of a professional, to each describe how they have felt and what their unmet needs are that produced those feelings. This establishes the uncontestable (inner) facts of the situation that can only come from each person. Next, when each person can hear what the other person has felt and what their unmet needs are, empathy for the other can open up when they recognize and understand the same kind of needs and feelings because these are universal to all people.

What each person will refrain from doing is making judgments about why the other person did what they did. Descriptions that include “I felt…” and “I needed…” are keeping the conversation on track. Descriptions that include “You did…” and “Because you…” are taking the conversation off track. Either person might suggest an idea for why the other did what they did but never insist it to be so without mutual agreement.

What gives the situation the most opportunity for reconciliation is when both people can work together – perhaps with the help of a professional – to form a shared story that shows respect for each person’s feelings and underlying needs, and then explains each other’s behavior in a way they can both accept as accurate. An acceptable explanation will include the facts of each person’s inner experience and the facts of the behaviors, and will not impose a judgment about intentions upon the other. This achievement alone establishes the necessary respect, but it does not fix the original problem that created the conflict. The mutually formed story provides a shared understanding of the nature of the problem and the possible solutions. The solution will involve one or both people making changes in behavior to better meet the needs of the other person while not requiring either to deny their own. The better solution is one where together they find a way to meet each other’s needs in the situation.


My thoughts and personal experience with this approach have been greatly influenced by humanistic psychology and Non-Violent Communication (what is also known as Compassionate Communication).

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