How do we make decisions, especially under pressure or in times of crisis?  And what on earth does emapthy have to do with it?

A look at the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962, gives food for thought on the subject.  As we have seen in Vietnam and more recently in Iraq, political decision-making processes are indeed fallible and there is a case for re-asserting the value of empathy in this process.

In Lang & Blight’s (2004) book on Robert McNamara’s political life, The Fog of War, there are a number of illustrations of high pressure decision-making, from the view of critical oral history. I will look at two of the key lessons posted in the book to forward some of the ideas that are championed by peace-makers around the world:

  1. That of the necessity of empathy
  2. The inadequacy of pure rationality to problem-solve

First, I will use  Ralph White‘s definition of empathy (Blight & Lang, p28):

It means simply understanding the thoughts and feelings of others.  It is distinguished from sympathy, which is defined as feeling with others.  Empathy with opponents is therefore psychologically possible even when a conflict is so intense that sympathy is out of the question…

Great, I agree – but try telling that to someone who is embroiled in the heat of a conflict!  My experience as a mediator tells me that this is one of the main sticking points in supporting people to move forward.  In fact, mediator’s often have to empathise with their parties’ lack of ability to empathise with their opponents, sometimes to the mediator’s dismay; for it is often the lack of empathy that prevents a willingness to try a new way of working with the problem.

Yet we may have something to learn from political decision-makers who also value empathy as an essential part of crisis management.  They see it valuable not just as a way of bridge-building, but also as a form of strategy building and testing.  Robert McNamara points out the importance of empathy by contrasting the eventual success of the Cuban Missile Crisis with the protracted costs of the Vietnam war (Ibid, p27):

In the Cuban Missile Crisis, at the end, I think we put ourselves in the skin of the Soviets.  In the case of Vietnam, we didn’t know them well enough to empathize.  And there was a total misunderstanding as a result.  They believed that we had simply replaced the French as a colonial power, and we were seeking to subject South and North Vietnam to our colonial interests, which was absolutely absurd.  And we, we saw Vietnam as an element of the Cold War.  Not what they saw it as: a civil war.

The consequences of this failure of understanding in Vietnam our now well known.  But for the politicians, empathy wasn’t about trying to win friends, it was about developing their strategy.  I would suggest mediators may take something of this approach with their clients.  According to White (Ibid, p28):

How can empathy be achieved?  It means jumping in imagination into another person’s skin,… imagining how you might feel about what you saw.  It means being the other person, at least for a while, and postponing skeptical analysis until later. … Most of all it means trying to look at one’s own group’s behaviour honestly, as it might appear when seen through the other’s eyes, recognizing that his eyes are almost certainly jaundiced, but recognising also that he has the advantage of not seeing our group’s behaviour through the rose-colored glasses that we ourselves normally wear.  He may have grounds for distrust, fear and anger that we have not permitted ourselves to see.  That is the point where honesty comes in.  An honest look at the other implies an honest look oneself.

Leaving aside the gendered references, we could easily substitute “groups” to either ourselves, our opponents, our clients or our client’s rivals.  We could thereby encourage them to shift their point of view, not for the sake of benefiting the other, but for strengthening their own position.  Inevitably this will have a shift on whosoever is willing to do so.  White also points out three mistakes that prevent empathy from occurring (Ibid):

  1. not seeing an opponent’s longing for peace
  2. not seeing an opponent’s fear of being attacked, and
  3. not seeing an opponent’s understandable anger

While it could be argued that these mistakes are also a demonstration of a lack of empathy, taken as questions for people working with conflict, they may serve as invitations for people or group’s to empathise with their opponents.

However, the language of those in conflict often is one of aggression; demonising the other as “war-monger;” “reckless, thoughtless and dangerous;” and “with the least regard for their own well being, let alone that of others. ” However, we can understand how, in conflict, both sides can be caught in this perspective and see these as inevitably consequences of hurt, and reflections of anger.  We can then ask ourselves or the people we work with, if the other might indeed be angry?  If so why?  And then the journey toward empathy can begin.  And this is crucial in problem-solving and peace-building alike, according to McNamara (Ibid, p27):

That’s what I call empathy.  We must try to put ourselves inside their skin and loo at us through their eyes, just to understand the thoughts that lie behind their decisions and actions.

As an adjunct to the necessity of empathy, and a beginning to answer point 2:

Empathy, while rationally justified, is not in and of itself, a wholly rational process.  It is an imaginative one as well.  It asks us to step beyond what we know for sure and into the realm of the unknown, using a whole range of different faculties – imagination, emotional sensitivity, creative thinking, estimation from facts.  This, combined with examples from the Fog of War, that “rationality will not save us…” demands that we look at new ways of working with decision-making and problem-solving.  These I hope you will see on my next blog.