Empathy

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.

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About creativeconflictwisdom

I spent 32 years in a Fortune Five company working on conflict: organizational, labor relations and senior management. I have consulted in a dozen different business sectors and the US Military. I work with a local environmental non profit. I have written a book on the neuroscience of conflict, and its implications for conflict handling called Creative Conflict Wisdom (forthcoming).
This entry was posted in Conflict Book Reviews, Conflict History, Conflict Processes, Uncategorized, Ways to handle conflict and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Empathy

  1. Ramaa says:

    Loving the Nelson Mandela example! Empathy – does it come more naturally to women?

  2. The work of Simon Baron Cohen in The Essential Difference (that I will cover in more depth in a future posting) suggests that the distribution of measured empathy (ability to mind read others) in women is skewed higher than men, whereas measured thinking systemically (like mechanical systems) is skewed higher for men than women. So on balance and on average, women would tend to have somewhat higher empathy than men. Also autism spectrum disorder (which can seen as lack of empathy) is ten times more prevalent in males than females. Whether this empathy differential is hard wired or cultural is less clear, though experiments in giving women testosterone (for medical reasons) does result in lower empathy test scores, and my experience in the local gym suggests this may be the case too! 🙂 Galinsky’s work on perspective taking also suggest to me (not proven) that the downside of empathy may be that you risk losing sight of your own interests, so in my conflict model (slowly unfolding in these postings) we need to be both empathetic AND keep a clear line of sight to our own interests: tough minded empathy very like Mandela’s approach.

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