Empathy often gets a bad rap in conflict. Especially, I understand from post-colonialists. 🙂 It sounds like weakness. But having spent my life as a conflict professional, I have found that empathetic understanding of the other side in conflict is essential and very demanding. And at worst, it means as the famous ancient Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu advocated: ‘Know your enemy’, just as in poker you try to understand your opponents to know if they are bluffing. This does not mean you sympathize with them or like them. You may be trying to take all their money but to do this you need empathy, a strong theory of mind of the other person/persons you are in the poker game or conflict with. But at best empathy is a powerful tool for creativity in solving conflict problems. And I tend to call it ‘theory of mind’ of the other, though in this post I will retain the term empathy as that is the term I am seeking to rehabilitate….
We may find empathy difficult, because we frame so much conflict as zero sum, win-lose, just like a football game. We demonize the other side, with little interest in seeing how they see things. Interestingly, I always hear people denigrate some other team or teams their sports team sees as an especially hated rival. Now, if this other team is as awful as the rival team supporters shout, then there would be no glory in beating them, and being beaten by them would be a disgrace. But this is not apparently how sports teams fans think my West Ham and University of Michigan supporting friends tell me.
So framing any conflict as win-lose makes empathy harder, but as the poker example shows, even then it is both possible and essential. And of course, sports coaches try to figure out the other team and its game plan, not demonize them as useless, if they have any sense at all. Why should we be different from the pros? Why demonize our neighbor, our boss, our spouse, our competitors?
The further twist on empathy takes us into the territory of my favorite F. Scott Fitzgerald quote:‘The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function’.
Once we try to use empathy in conflict, we struggle to hold both our own take on the conflict and the other side’s take in mind. We struggle with the challenge of Scott Fitzgerald’s first rate intelligence and the two opposed ideas: our side’s and the other side’s. We fear that we may lose sight of our interests and be suckered into seeing the other side’s interests and feeling sympathy for them.
But empathy is not sympathy. I had a former British Army intelligence officer work for me. He had been in Northern Ireland during the war with the Irish Republican Army. He had a very healthy respect for their capabilities, and a very clear understanding of the political goals they were trying to achieve. But that did not stop him knowing his job was to simultaneously both deeply understand them, and find ways to defeat or even kill them. So as a conflict professional, he could do both, just as the Scott Fitzgerald quote suggests is possible.
So the empathy I advocate in conflict, in the third stage of the Creative Conflict Model of this blog: Getting Empathetic, is tough minded, and is not the same as sympathy, of feeling the same as the other side. It is only possible after we have established very clearly our own interests in the conflict, in writing, so we can’t lose sight of them when we walk round the other side of the negotiating table.
It allows us then to look at the conflict from the other side’s perspective and look to establish what the other side’s interests really are. Then we can use that knowledge, and the knowledge of our own interests, to craft potential win-win solutions that expand the solution space of the conflict. It is creative empathy and the opposite of weakness. It requires considerable mental toughness to execute effectively. And practice, and a good step by step conflict process as this blog ceaselessly advocates and which most people find themselves unable to do, preferring to keep killing or whatever rather than get systematic or disciplined in their conflict approach.
Below: the IRA my former colleague empathized with and tried to kill: they were militarily defeated by the British Army over a 30 year war that cost lots of lives and ultimately achieved a political compromise they could probably have had 25 years and many fewer lives lost earlier….