Crying in conflict

Emotional crying (as opposed to tears that form when we have a foreign object in our eye) is a uniquely human phenomenon. Babies and young children cry a lot, but as we get older we tend to cry less frequently. This is partly because we have learned different ways to communicate to get our needs met (for example, asking for something using language), and because we have learned to control our crying response for various reasons.

However, most adults do cry at least occasionally. There are typical situations in which adults are likely to cry. These include:

  1. When we experience loss or separation (e.g. grief, separation anxiety, homesickness, lovesickness);
  2. When we feel helpless or powerless;
  3. When we are in physical pain or discomfort;
  4. Empathic crying (i.e. when someone else is crying and we cry along with them);
  5. When we find ourselves in an extraordinarily positive or moving situation (e.g. when we witness altruism, self-sacrifice, comradeship, virtuosity, or powerful connections or reconnections between individuals).
Photo by Tom Pumford, on Unsplash

When adults are asked to self-report what typically makes them cry, the top responses include:

  1. The death of someone they love;
  2. The breakdown of an important relationship;
  3. Sad movies;
  4. Weddings;
  5. Reunions; and
  6. Music.

Remarkably, physical pain is rarely mentioned.

However, when people are asked to talk about the most recent time they cried, the top three responses are:

  1. Conflict.
  2. Being rejected.
  3. Feeling personal inadequacy.

Given that conflict is one of the most common situations in which people cry, those of us who work with people in conflict need to understand: 

  • Why people cry in conflict situations;
  • What impact it can have on that person and others; and
  • What kinds of interventions are appropriate when someone cries.
Photo by Karolina Grabowska, Pexels.

What is crying

Crying can be defined simply as:

The production of tears, which may be accompanied by sobbing, vocalisations, and/or body movements.

Crying may be elicited by:

  • Situation appraisals (e.g. that a situation is threatening or that one has no possibilities to deal with it, loss, separation, rejection, or reunion)
  • Emotional states (most notably, sadness, powerlessness, and pain, but also happiness).
Photo by Kindel Media, Pexels.

Facts and myths about crying

Researchers have studied adult crying for many years, but there is little agreement about the causes and effects of crying.

Some people believe that crying is a means to remove toxic waste products from the body, much like the kidneys detoxify the body, and that the process of removing these chemicals from the body through tears has a positive effect on a person’s mental state. However, this has not been proven by any scientific research.

Some people also believe that crying releases hormones that help reduce stress. This has also not been proven. In fact, research has shown that crying doesn’t always result in us feeling better – sometimes crying can make us feel worse!  There are also persuasive arguments that the presumed cathartic effects of crying are often the consequence of positive changes in the situation or relationships with others that crying brings about, rather than the experience of crying itself.

Others believe that crying is a way for the body to manage intense emotions, by letting them “overflow” once they’ve passed a critical level. While crying is sometimes a response to very intense emotions, we also cry about ordinary daily frustrations and conflicts as well as major life events. 

Some people believe that crying is useful as a social signal to communicate to others and change their behaviour towards us in some favourable way – this is sometimes true, but research has also shown that most adults cry when they are alone.

Crying and emotions

Most people associate crying with the emotion of sadness, although people also recognise that sometimes people also cry with happiness or when they are feeling anger. Crying frequently signals that the person is experiencing some kind of emotion, but it’s not always clear which one/s. Even if we can be reasonably certain about which emotions are triggering the crying, we may not fully understand what aspects of the situation are giving rise to those emotions. Crying, in and of itself, doesn’t give us much information about what the person crying is experiencing and why.

What affects whether a person will cry?

Infographic describing the factors that affect whether a person cries.

Suppression / regulation of crying

Some people are naturally more able to suppress tears even when they feel like crying. Other people may be less able to do so depending on their current mood, physical state and the intensity of the emotion triggering the crying.

There are also significant gender differences that become apparent from early adolescence – most likely based on gender socialisation. For example, men are better at “swallowing” their tears, despite being naturally just as likely to cry. There is some evidence, at least from the United States, that the influence of gender on crying may be changing.

One’s professional context and training may have a strong influence on whether or not one cries. For example, research has shown that therapists and nurses cry frequently, whereas engineers, stockbrokers, soldiers, and doctors rarely cry.

How people perceive and respond to a person who is crying

When we observe a person crying, this will usually have some impact on us. How we respond to another’s crying will depend on different things, including:

  • The characteristics of both the crier and the observer
  • Their relationship
  • The perceived cause of the crying (for example, crying because of a significant personal loss is typically met with understanding and empathy, whereas triggers related to self-pity, incompetence, or failure, typically lead to relatively strong negative reactions from others).
  • The perceived appropriateness of crying as a response to that cause
  • The perceived genuineness of the crying
  • The social context
  • Whether other people are present and how they are responding to the crying.

Research has shown that people generally perceive a person who is crying as warm, and this can motivate them to want to comfort and help them. Crying is often a powerful elicitor of sympathy and, occasionally, empathic crying. Crying can communicate a variety of personal needs and desires, and may motivate helping behaviour from those who witness the crying.

However, sometimes, particularly when people believe that a person who is crying is helpless, or when they believe that the crying is inappropriate, observers can be motivated to avoid, rather than engage, with the person crying.

Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

What should a practitioner do if a client is crying?

Firstly, this may be something you can discuss with clients prior to a process like mediation. It’s helpful to normalise crying during conflict resolution processes, and to give your client confidence that you will not be surprised and that you will respond in a way that best supports them in the moment. You could explain to your client some of the options they have if they cry (or the other person cries) during the process, and ask them to think about what they would prefer to do in advance.

In the moment, it depends whether the tears are interfering with the person’s participation in the process, or whether the person is comfortable to keep engaging despite their tears. If someone is crying so hard that they are no longer able to communicate effectively, they may need time to regulate so that they can continue. They may prefer to do this in private or with a support person. However, they may simply need a few moments to compose themselves. It is helpful to ask what the person needs rather than making assumptions. A short break is often a useful circuit breaker, after which the practitioner can have a conversation with the person to see what they would like to do next. Perhaps check in whether they’d prefer to be alone, or have someone with them. It can also be really useful to help the person reflect on what has triggered the crying, because this can also help them make choices about what they might want to do next (e.g. moving on, or explaining to the other person what they were thinking or feeling).

Keep in mind that the practitioner’s response to the person crying may send unintended messages to that person, including:

  • By offering them tissues, you may indicate that you would like the crying to stop.
  • By ushering them away into a private room, you might be indicating that crying is not a good thing to be doing in front of others.
TIP: While you probably want to have tissues close at hand and visible to your clients, you don’t want to make them the centrepiece of the mediation table. I once had a woman walk into my mediation room, look at the tissues in the middle of the table and say “Oh no, you’re not going to make us cry, are you?”

It’s also important to consider the person or people who are NOT crying, and how they are responding to the person crying. You may need to support them to manage their reaction to the other’s tears.

What kinds of things do you normally do when someone is crying? What helps and what doesn’t?

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