On a previous posting, our correspondent Kyrie Eleison raised the interesting question whether in conflict it was possible to show empathy to the sort of self-seeking, sociopathic folk (aka assholes), who dominate our current politics and many corporations. I thought this an excellent question and responded with reference to the Creative Conflict Model, which is behind this blog and its approach to empathy. I post my reply below:
@Kyrie Eleison. Excellent points on which I have some views, as Getting Empathetic is the critical third stage in the Creative Conflict Model (see top of Home Page) of this blog.
I make a strong distinction between sympathy, which is what I think you are talking about, and which is hard for us in negotiating with people whose values seem to us to suck, and empathy, which I use to mean having a ‘theory of mind’ of the other side in conflict. By this, I mean we go beyond their positions and come to understand their interests, their emotions and their world view, without accepting them as valid in any objective sense; simply that they are how they see things. And often their perspective (like our own before we drill down to our real interests) is very positional: they want X. They demand Y. Whatever. They feel self righteous.
I have negotiated with people, with whom I had no sympathy whatsoever, including a break away union with racist neo-Nazi leanings. Hostage negotiators negotiate to free hostages without any sympathy for the hostage takers. But they do come to understand them, their delusions even. It is very feasible, and involves a mental detachment that can be demanding. The aim of the process is to creatively expand solution space. And so even in Washington, even with people refusing to compromise, it is still possible to use empathy, even if we use in as Sun Tzu the Chinese military strategist suggested to ‘know our enemy’ and fight them better.
Unfortunately, the situation of conflict often causes us to lose any empathetic reading of the other side. I call this tendency Conflict Autism: the lack of theory of mind of the other side. As one of my military friends put it: ‘once we have been bombed, we switch off the radar’ which is opposite of what we need to do if we want a good outcome. Getting the other side to see its real long term interests is the ideal in Step 3 of the Creative Conflict Model. But failing that, we do it unilaterally. We uncover as best we can their real interests and try to come up with a deal that meets both our real interests (we have uncovered in Step 2 of the Creative Conflict Model) and theirs. It is best done by working through the whole 7 Step Model in writing….
Hope this helps and yes it does work in my decades of experience using this approach as a professional negotiator.
I would add to my original reply, that in dealing with sociopaths, it is important to know what are BATNA is, our Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement. We don’t have to reach an agreement with a Sociopath if we can simply walk away or impose a reasonable outcome. We should certainly never agree to anything that is worse than what we can get without an agreement in any conflict. And we should watch for the manipulative tactics of sociopaths as they only survive by their use.
I had no sympathy for Dick Cheney but I had empathy that allowed me to understand what he was up to (righting the wrongs that were done to poor old Richard Nixon’s sociopathic Presidency etc.)