I recently heard Michael Eselun, an oncology chaplain, give a speech on a coping mechanism that  each of us use every single day: “it could be worse.”  This simple phrase is used in all types of situations. 

We may be stressing out in a particular situation and we tell ourselves, “it could be worse”  and we calm down and relax a bit.  Parents teach their children this concept and our society relies on this message to help us get through our daily lives. “I work two jobs and I still don’t know how the bill are going to be paid…but at least I’m not hungry and at least there is a roof over my head.”  “My life may be rough, but at least my family has not suffered mass catastrophes like the Japan earthquakes or Hurricane Katrina or the Mississippi floods.”

In speaking on this theme, Michael Eselum spoke about the implications that this coping strategy has on our society and what it says about view of our own suffering as well as the suffering of others.  Eselum painted a picture of a person waiting in what seems to be the longest and slowest moving line at the grocery store.   You are last in line; however, when someone else steps up behind you, you feel a tiny bit better.  You say to yourself, “It could be worse.”  In effect, this coping mechanism only allows us to show compassion to the person who is “last in line.” 

Of course, there is a time and place for helping people see reality.  It is sometimes necessary to help a person realize everything they have to appreciate. But there is also a time and a place for recognizing that everyone is suffering in their own way.  As humans, we exist in a “hierarchy of suffering.”  But every person has their own pain.  It is important to recognize this pain by instead of simply placing the “it could be worse” Band-Aid on their pain.

When I went to small-claims court to volunteer my time as a mediator, I saw pain.  Only distress and some level of hurt brings parties to court to fight with family members, neighbors, old-friends, or former-employees.  Often there were discrepancies of power: the landlord and tenant, the restaurant owner and the diner, or the employer and the employee.  As the mediator, I sometimes found myself in private caucus with the powerful landlord or the powerful restaurant owner thinking, “cut the tenant a break—you’re in a better position to give a little and take the tax right-off.”

I believe that settling is the best solution 95% of the time.  So employing this strategy has merit.  But I also realize that it is important to recognize that the landlord may be suffering just as much as the tenant, albeit in different ways.  The person with perceived power has their own reasons for being in small claims court.  As mediators, it is our duty to be impartial and to help the parties communicate with one another.  While manipulation is frequently used to get the parties to reach settlement, I think it is important to at least be aware of how the coping mechanism “it could be worse” enters the scene.  The coping strategy certainly tints the mediator’s mind, and it no doubt shades the perspectives of each person sitting around the mediation table. 

Mikita is the Editor-in-Chief of ADR Times. As an associate at Northrup Schlueter LLC, she focuses predominantly on litigation and arbitration in the field of construction insurance defense. She received her Juris Doctorate at Pepperdine and a Masters in Dispute Resolution from the Straus Institute. Mikita has been published in the Pepperdine Dispute Resolution Law Journal and worked at the Centre for Effective Dispute Resolution in London. As an avid traveler, she continues to explore various dispute resolution issues and how they vary from region to region.