When I talk to people about conflict I place a lot of emphasis on empathy: understanding where the other side is coming from. In later posts I will talk something about the neuroscience of empathy. But let me start with a practical example.
Nelson Mandela was in prison for 28 years from 1962 until 1990. During that time, he made every effort to understand his enemy: the white Afrikaners who had jailed him. He learned their language, read their novels and poems, and tried to understand their history. He talked to his prison guards and tried to understand everything he could about the Afrikaner mentality. He made his fellow prisoners, the leadership of his party the African National Congress do the same. And he after his release he told the great South African and Afrikaner novelist J M Coetze that the Afrikaner novelists were key to this process of empathetic understanding.
This meant that when he came to negotiate his own release and then the relatively peaceful transition to majority rule, he absolutely clearly understood the perspectives and interests of the other side. Yet no one would accuse him of losing sight of his own side’s interests.
So in conflict, it is critical that we have this ability to walk round to the other side of the table and see the conflict from the other side’s point of view; while retaining quite clear sight of our own interests. This can be challenging but is essential in good conflict handling. Try it in your next personal conflict. First get clear on your own interests in the conflict: write them down and then proceed to talk to the other side to find out their perspective and interests. When attacked, ask questions like what is your interest in this? Why? etc. And try to see if there is some way forward. I will be posting systematic approaches in due course. If Nelson Mandela managed to overcome the bitterness of 28 years in jail and understand his jailers, we should be able to show empathy to those who have done rather less to us. This is the young Nelson Mandela who was already wise:
Patty Waldemeir’s book Anatomy of a Miracle is a great account of the whole history of this process that I will use a future post.