Attend & Befriend – Practicing Compassionate Engagement


In contrast to the default human response of “fight or flight,” the “attend & befriend” practice emphasizes compassionate presence and engagement in response to conflict and adversity. This approach encourages individuals to cultivate compassion for themselves and others, fostering deeper connections and collaboration. By practicing attend & befriend, we can navigate conflicts in a more open, creative, and compassionate way. It allows us to respond with grace, rather than react, to difficult situations, fostering better understanding and resolutions. This approach contributes to creating loving relationships and a more peaceful world. 


This practice can be applied in various contexts, such as our inner talk, personal relationships, workplace engagements, and community and social interactions. It promotes self-awareness, emotional resilience, and a more compassionate relationship with oneself and others. It serves to cultivate empathy, build trust, and strengthen bonds.  Attend & befriend can be used in personal development, counseling sessions, group therapy, and conflict resolution. It can also be incorporated into workplace wellness programs and community-building initiatives.


Attend & befriend recognizes the shared human experience of suffering and responds with empathy, understanding, and a desire to alleviate distress. It involves attentive presence, active listening, openness, and curiosity.  The fight-or-flight response activates the sympathetic nervous system, releasing hormones like adrenaline and cortisol that increase heart rate, blood pressure, and energy levels to prime the body for dealing with a threat. This response evolved to help our ancestors survive life-threatening situations by enabling them to fight off predators or flee to safety. In contrast, the attend & befriend response is theorized to involve the release of oxytocin and endogenous opioid peptides that promote nurturing and social bonding behaviors. In other words, it switches from the more survival-oriented “reptilian” parts of our brain to the uniquely human pre-frontal cortex allowing us to pause reflexive action and consider a conscious response. Attend & befriend is also aligned with the underlying creative philosophy of “Yes, And used in improvisational theater. Here the golden rule is to acknowledge rather than reject what the other says or does and to build on their input.    The key elements of this approach include:
  • Attending: This is about being fully present and engaged, giving undivided attention to the person or situation at hand. This seeks to understand their perspective and offer them non-judgment by suspending criticism, evaluation, or preconceived notions, and accepting others as they are. The grace of attention and presence shifts the other’s stance. Offered compassion, they are likely to soften their position and be willing to offer a greater measure of attention and openness in turn. 
  • Openness: Approaching interactions with an open and curious mindset, seeking to understand others' perspectives and experiences, opens up possibilities.
  • Befriending: This seeks to find connection and common ground with what is offered. Rather than reject what is said (fight response) or ignore or withdraw (flight), this seeks to engage constructively and compassionately. Befriending doesn't mean we have to agree with or like the other person's words or actions, but rather, we recognize that they, like us, are human beings who are susceptible to suffering and subjectivity.  
  • Creativity: The practice seeks to find common ground and mutual solutions. It takes creativity to understand another’s needs deeply and think in fresh ways. 
By practicing attend & befriend, individuals can create a safe and supportive environment that fosters genuine connection, trust, and mutual understanding.

Sample Activity

Practicing Attend & Befriend on Ourselves We can carry anger, hurt, and stress in response to what life, work, and relationships throw at us. Attend & befriend can help us engage consciously rather than from emotional triggers. Here’s one way.
  1.  Find a quiet space: Find a quiet and comfortable place. Sit comfortably, on a chair or the floor, with your back straight but not stiff.
  2. Focus on your breath: Close your eyes and bring your attention to your breath. Notice how it feels as it enters and leaves your body. If your mind wanders, gently bring it back to your breath.
  3. Attend to your feelings: After a few minutes of focusing on your breath, shift your attention to any feelings or emotions that are present. This could be stress, anxiety, anger, or any other emotion. Instead of trying to change or judge these feelings, simply observe them. This is the "attend" part of "attend and befriend."
  4. Befriend your feelings: Now, try to cultivate a sense of compassion towards these feelings. Imagine sending them warmth and kindness. You might even imagine these feelings as a friend who is in pain. What would you say to this friend? How would you comfort them? This is the "befriend" part of "attend and befriend."
Practicing Attend & Befriend with Another:
  1. Prepare for the conversation: Before you engage in conversation, take a few minutes to get centered. Take deep breaths, ground yourself in the present moment, and set an intention to listen and speak with compassion.
  2. Active Listening: When the other person is speaking, give them your full attention. Try not to formulate your response while they're still talking. Instead, just listen. This is the "attend" part of "attend and befriend."
  3. Mindful Responding: When it's your turn to speak, take a moment to consider your words carefully. First, acknowledge what they said and express gratitude for their sharing. Next, share what was said that you connect with. Then, offer what you have experienced or want. Try to express your feelings and needs without blaming or criticizing the other person. Use "I" statements, such as "I feel upset when..." instead of "You make me feel..."
  4. Compassionate Engagement:  Throughout the conversation, remind yourself of your shared humanity with the other person. Even if you disagree with the other person, try to understand their perspective and feelings. This doesn't mean you have to agree with them, but simply acknowledging their experience can go a long way in resolving conflict. 
  5. Befriending: Surface areas that you can both agree on and actions you can take to build on those connections. Agree to continue to engage to more deeply understand and bridge differences. 
  6. Take Breaks: If the conversation becomes too heated, take a break. Use this time to breathe and calm yourself down. Remember, the goal is not to "win" an argument but to understand each other better and find a way to cooperate and build a positive relationship.
This approach requires patience and practice, but it can significantly improve your ability to handle conflicts in a compassionate and understanding way.


The approach was developed by Shelley E. Taylor, a social psychologist and professor emeritus at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). Other researchers and practitioners, such as Tara Brach, have incorporated similar ideas into their work on mindfulness and stress management.

Target Audience:

  • Individuals
  • Families
  • Communities
  • Workplaces
  • Educational institutions
  • Healthcare settings

Got feedback or input? Please share!