Is Empathy Possible in Conflict with Sociopaths aka Assholes?

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.)


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 History, Conflict Processes, Economic Conflict, Neuro-science of conflict, PERSONAL CONFLICT RESOLUTION: CREATIVE STRATEGIES, The Conflict Model, Ways to handle conflict and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Is Empathy Possible in Conflict with Sociopaths aka Assholes?

  1. Kyrie Eleison says:

    To me, sympathy is derived from having gone through a similar experience yourself, where empathy is along the lines of gauging another’s emotional state without necessarily having any personal point of reference. A ‘theory of mind’ is an excellent way to describe it.

    Let’s say I get a paper cut. Most people reading this (and have had at least one paper cut in their travels through life) might immediately wince and/or think “Yeah, that sucks” which is essentially sympathy. To those of us fortunate enough to have avoided them all our lives, we have no internal point of reference however we can still “feel” that I am in pain (and that it is very annoying) thus representing empathy.

    I’m not certain it would be fair to expect sympathy from someone who has not previously “shared my suffering”. Mitt Romney attempting to sympathize with the unemployed because he himself was “unemployed” didn’t really work all that well, did it? Perhaps he should have tried empathy, which would have been the right response, if he is even capable of it.

    So, this is what I was getting at when I used the term empathy in association with sociopaths. Asshole is a great term, but it does a disservice to assholes since there are many different reasons why a person might act like an asshole. In essence, all sociopaths are indeed assholes, but not all assholes are sociopaths, in my opinion.

    Getting back to the topic at hand, again I question the ability for a sociopath to “put oneself into another’s shoes”. In fact, I thought that one of the characteristic traits of sociopathy was the total inability to perform this function in a non-superficial way (i.e. not just faking it). It makes me wonder if they (sociopaths) idolize professional actors for their ability to be extremely convincing emotional chameleons.

    In your example, you say that you can empathize with Dick Cheney and I believe you. I am still struggling with the idea that he could respond in kind.

    Imposing an outcome on the other party I think explicitly implies that they really don’t have any clue where you are coming from and thus one needs to resort to the use of force, ultimatums, or what have you in order to achieve the desired outcome. And in doing this, you essentially lower yourself to the tactics of the other side because that’s exactly how they operate. But hey, if it works…

    I know that when someone forces me to do something without any clear understanding of why, I tend to feel a bit resentful with a feeling in the air that nothing has really been resolved, rather I am simply forced to accept the other side’s point of view. Do you think I am just going to drop it at that point? Can there be a *lasting* conflict resolution from this? I can garner at least one example from exchanges on this very blog where the answer is a resounding NO.

    • @Kryie Eleison. I am not sure the empathy and sympathy distinction is wholly based on experience. I think I can feel sympathy for a woman giving birth though I have clearly never experienced it. And empathy isn’t wholly mental, theory of mind of the other side. Indeed Adam Galinsky talks about perspective taking as when you figure out what someone is doing in chess, and to him empathy can also be about feeling what they are feeling,regardless of whether we have had that experience. Mirror Neurons fire when we see someone acting and are the same neurons that fire when we do that action. In some cases, they might fire when we see something we have never done….like eat an insect….

      And you are right, not all assholes are sociopaths…I like the idea that assholes are kiss up, kick down types. And in my approach to conflict, I don’t need to other side to empathize with me though it helps. Eventually after decades of enmity, the two sides in South Africa became able to see each other’s point of view, at least partly because Mandela insisted the ANC leadership learn Afrikaans, the Afrikaners’ language and read their history, literature, poetry etc. Much lack of empathy is based on ignorance.

      And you are right that imposing a solution on the other side may lead to further conflict, but with sociopaths on the other side, it may be the least worst option. I only negotiated with real sociopaths a few times and the thing is that most conflict involves more than one person on each side and so the other side’s colleagues forced some reasonableness on the sociopaths…Most conflicts seem to be repeated: marital, international, union/management, within management teams, political, religious. And so behavior in one round influences behavior in another. So a sociopath does very badly in game theory simulations like Iterative Prisoner’s Dilemma because everyone punishes them for bad behavior. No union leader or manager in my business world who repeatedly broke his word could survive more than a few days. I used to say to my union opposite numbers: don’t ask me that; you need me honest…

  2. Kyrie Eleison says:

    In instances like this, it is always helpful to me to study the root of the word and how it was derived to determine its real meaning. Of course, over time, these definitions often change dynamically based on usage (case in point: the evolution of the myriad meanings of the word “faggot”).


    “Sympathy comes from Middle French sympathie, from Late Latin sympathia, from Ancient Greek συμπάθεια (sumpatheia), from σύν (sun, “with, together”) + πάθος (pathos, “suffering”). The word ’empathy’ is a twentieth-century borrowing of Ancient Greek ἐμπάθεια (empatheia, literally “passion”) (formed from ἐν (en-, “in, at”) + πάθος (pathos, “feeling”)), coined by Edward Bradford Titchener to translate German Einfühlung.”

    So it would seem that the origins of sympathy are based around the idea of feeling the same suffering along with another person whereas empathy is a relatively modern and derived term used to express “feeling into” something as the German term suggests. The way we use it has no connection whatsoever to modern Greek and their usage of the term is quite interesting indeed.

    Empathy is usually always a good thing in that, if nothing else, it helps us to understand how another person is feeling – provided you are right in your assessment, of course!

    Sympathy, however, can put up roadblocks for us in many cases. An extremely simple example would be a person who has recently quit smoking talking trash about those who still do, without taking into account that there are many different reasons why someone continues to smoke. The obstacles the newly-reformed ex-smoker overcame in order to quit may not be the same obstacles someone who continues to smoke is still struggling with. It’s not always just a physical dependency, even if that is a big part of it. “No pain, no gain” is an example of how cold and callous sympathy can be.

    Another would be Newt Gingrich speaking disparagingly about the less fortunate, in that they need to “pull themselves up by their own bootstraps”. Pardon me, but that process seems a little vague – care to share with us exactly how you did it so that we all can emulate? I hope it is more substantive than simply asking mom and dad for more money… if all he is talking about is working hard at an honest living, I’m pretty sure the bulk of the population already has that part figured out and does not need to be patronized.

    At any rate, both eating an insect and the trials of childbirth can be both sympathetic and empathetic based on context I suppose. If one agrees that insects are inherently filthy and unappealing, one does not need to place it in their mouth to feel repulsed. Similarly, to anyone who has never witnessed or performed a natural childbirth, it becomes obvious that the mother is in acute and agonizing pain.

    Your assertion that much lack of empathy being based on ignorance is extremely profound. I remember watching a piece about an eastern European nation (I cannot recall which at the moment, my apologies) where those in government who were tasked with devising public assistance programs actually had to live on the rations they were proposing for a meaningful period of time before implementation just so they could see first-hand how they would be asking others to live, indeed if it were even feasible to do so. Things like this are a great start, and seem to be way more progressive than anything we’ve been able to come up with here in the U.S.

    I respect and value your opinion as an expert in these matters, especially in regards to how they apply to the art of conflict resolution, thus I will defer to your wisdom. I’m finding volumes of texts written by scholars, philosophers, and practicing psychologists who are way smarter than me yet are still waging this same debate. Being a “big picture” person, I think we have a clear understanding of each other in spite of words getting in the way. It’s almost as if we can feel where we both are coming from on this topic! 😉

    • @Kyrie Eleison. I had had a look at the dictionary definitions and origins of the words as I do, some time back, but had forgotten the detail. Thanks for reminding me.

      There was a famous British example of a very conservative politician Michael Portillo, who had said Gingrich-like things, who when he lost his seat in Parliament, and there was dancing in the streets, wondered why he was so hated. And to his credit, he did indeed then live with a single mom on state support for a few weeks and came back a changed man, gave up politics and became a journalist of a quite intelligent kind.

      I am still amazed how many negotiators make no effort to see the world as the other side sees it, consciously and ideally in writing so there is no dodging it in any after action reviews. They are so uncertain of their own interests, they are afraid to walk round the other side of the table and ‘walk in the other side’s shoes’, something I was never afraid to do, having a very clear idea of my side’s real interests and usually have written it down. It is hard to imagine how much resistance I found to actually writing down negotiation realities, interests, options etc. It was as if the invention of writing never happened…. 🙂

      And yes given you think for yourself, you would make a good member of a negotiating team. Always a pleasure to discuss matters with you.

      I will post your reply above in its own right as I think it has valuable insights. Thank you.

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