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Communication and Conflict Newsletter, Issue #009, - Speaking for ourselves and the Rescuer Syndrome
October 19, 2008

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Newsletter - Rescuer Syndrome

Speaking for ourselves and the Rescuer Syndrome
(....or, 'Let's sort ourselves out first before we think we can or should sort everyone else out'..... )

Alan Sharland

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Hi Everyone,

Welcome to Newsletter no.9

This month I want to look at the 'Rescuer Syndrome', which is a frequent cause of difficult situations escalating, or even of starting them. This is so, even though the Rescuer's intention is to help.

This seems to happen for various reasons:

Someone who is showing 'Rescuer Syndrome' thinks that someone who is in a dispute needs their 'support'. Or, they believe they need their help, even if the person doesn't think so themselves.

For example, situations where parents help their young adult children in ways that are not invited can often lead to family rifts.

Stand back! Let me put out the fire! What do you mean there isn't a fire? Oh dear, I seem to have flooded everything.

The arising of Rescue Syndrome is often due to an assumption that the person is somehow 'not capable' of resolving their difficulties through their own efforts, although the reason given for the one sided support is often one of 'solidarity' or 'unity'. Acknowledgement of how this escalates the problem is rare in such situations.

Someone joining in a dispute 'on the side' of another can only escalate the situation because they are adding to the numbers of people in dispute.

Their presence is likely to lead others to start to 'support' the other disputant to try to 'even the score'.

And so, the process continues until, 10's, 100's, 1000's and even millions of people become involved, taking 'sides' in the situation.

This isn't to say we should ignore situations where two or more people are having difficulty with each other, it's a question of how we involve ourselves in the situation, if our intention is to help.

I wouldn't disagree that something can be done, but when the only option considered is to 'take sides' then it can only escalate the situation, perpetuating a competitive approach to the dispute which I have discussed in previous newsletters and on the website.

An option that does not escalate the situation, if held to with discipline and commitment, is to offer support to both / all of those in dispute to help them find an effective way forward that minimises the chances of violence whether physical or emotional.

We don't have to be mediators to provide this. We just need to understand:

a) the pointlessness of taking sides and how destructive it can be, and..

b) how much more effective being impartial can be in supporting a constructive and less violent outcome.

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Even if, at root, we do agree with one side more than another or feel some kind of loyalty to them. If our loyalty is to promoting their happiness and well-being, we can do our best to remain impartial in such situations.

To help us understand the reasons for trying to stay impartial we can ask ourselves the following question....

If I see a friend or relative involved in a dispute, am I really helping by 'taking their side' against the other person?

Look at the consequences:

  • It probably means we spend time talking to them about it, encouraging them in their 'battle' to win the situation, little realising how much that perpetuates the negative effects of the dispute on their lives
  • It means that, through others seeing that we have taken one person's side, they may then feel inclined to do the same for the other person, thereby increasing the numbers of people involved, the complexity of the situation, the greater likelihood of incidents (simply because there are more people involved to 'create' an incident), and therefore increasing the level of risk for the person we are 'supporting'.
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  • It means that, even if the original people involved could have resolved their difficulty themselves, there is now much more to resolve in the situation, and more people needing to find a resolution, and therefore less likelihood of the situation being resolved.

The Rescuer Syndrome can be seen occurring in all areas of life, including on an international level between countries. It never helps. It only escalates.

But the only question that matters is:

Do I get Rescuer Syndrome when I see someone in a dispute?

Quotation Corner:
'The world is ruled by letting things take their course. It cannot be ruled by interfering'
Lao Tzu - Tao Te Ching

If we see someone having some kind of problem, or if we presume they are having a problem, based on our own judgements and assumptions about their situation, do we step in 'on their behalf', take their side, take up their cause, speak for them, back them up, show 'solidarity' etc.?

If so, are we really helping?

Or are we just making it worse for everyone?

Including for the person or people we claim to be helping?

Supporting both or all of the people involved is the only way in which we can avoid escalating the situation, and instead of taking ownership of the situation from them, we can try to help them all respond more constructively to the situation, by leaving our own judgements, opinions, advice and interventions out of the support we provide.

Even if we are only able to interact with one of those involved.

Because it is not our dispute!

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Besides being the author of the Communication and Conflict website Alan is Director of CAOS Conflict Management Tel. +44 20 3371 7507

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Recommended Books

Everyone Can Win: Responding to Conflict Constructively is a great book for understanding more about how we can respond to conflict more effectively. It's written by people from the Conflict Resolution Network in Australia. Their website is also full of useful resources and information to help understand and respond to conflict as an opportunity for learning, connection and insight.

And of course you know that I will always recommend books by Byron Katie to assist in learning how to take responsibility for our own actions and how to respond to conflict constructively:


Training courses starting in the new year:

Learning from Difficult Relationships: This is the foundation course that covers the Principles of Effective Communication that have been developed from insights gained from the practice of mediation - a process that helps people to resolve their disputes.

Other workshops that follow on from this are: These courses are run by Hillingdon Community Mediation in West London, UK.

Effective Communication Skills – this workshop looks at the skills required to practice effective communication in any context, with our partner, our children, in the workplace, anywhere.

Learning to Grow through Conflict – there are 3 main ways in which people respond to conflict. Two of them never work in resolving a conflict, the third one does. This workshop raises our awareness of where we use the first two and how we can respond more constructively to conflict and see it as an opportunity for growth.

These training courses will be held in Ealing, West London in early 2009. Each course lasts 1 day - 9.30am - 4.30pm.

Click here for more details.

Would you like to create your own website? Click here to find out how I went about creating this one.

Consultation via Skype.

Would you like:

  • Conflict coaching to support you in a difficult situation to find more effective ways of responding?
  • Mentoring, if you are a Mediator or other conflict resolution practitioner, to support you in reviewing and developing your practice?

If you have Skype and would like to arrange a consultation, please go to the Skype Consultation page to send me details of what you would like to discuss and proposed times to call me.

Skype to Skype calls are free from anywhere in the world so there will not be any telephone cost, just the fee for the consultation which is a fixed charge per minute.

Don't have Skype? Click on this small banner to find out more about it:

Some links that you may find interesting...... is an excellent resource of information relating to mediation. There are articles, links to websites and blogs as well as the possibility of locating mediators in your area. - is a comprehensive guide to information about Self Improvement, Personal Growth and Self Help on the Internet. It is designed to be an organized directory, with articles and references to thousands of other Web Sites on the World Wide Web.

Oh Wow This Changes Everything is a great site with an enormous number of links to articles about different aspects of effective communication and conflict resolution. Definitely worth a could be there for hours! helps people, like yourself, create change in their life and business. They share fun stress management strategies and personal development articles.

New This site is sooo full of great links and resources relating to Co-operative Communication skills - I would very much recommend it.
Learning Supersite is a fascinating site dedicated to the development of informal learning. "A new approach to learning, the Learning Supersite is a venue that provides personal learning community, but with state-of-the-art Web technologies."

Transforming Conflict is an excellent organisation which works with young people, and adults, in educational settings, promoting restorative approaches to conflict.

Aik Saath This is an amazing and interesting website, quite besides the work of Aik Saath that it promotes. Aik Saath works to promote conflict resolution skills in young people and the development of peace and racial harmony in Slough, UK and its surrounding areas.

Would you like to build your own website?.....this is how I built mine... I Love SBI!

So, how did you like it?

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