Inspired by an article in the Jewish Chronicle by Simon Baron-Cohen and Avi Machlis, I’ve been thinking about the need for empathy, and ways to enhance it. Baron-Cohen and Machlis define empathy as “the ability to imagine someone else’s thoughts and feelings”, and decries the apparent lack of this ability on either side of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

They go on to describe some small examples of how empathy can begin to open up some space for resolution of the conflict, such as the The Parents Circle, a grassroots organisation of bereaved Palestinians and Israelis which works for reconciliation, and Anwar Sadat’s groundbreaking visit to Israel in 1971, in which he reassured the Israeli parliament that the Jewish state could be recognised.

As professor of developmental psychopathology at Cambridge and director of its autism research centre, Baron-Cohen knows what he’s talking about. Without empathy, we dehumanise the people on the other side of a conflict – as, until very recently, the governments of the USA and Iran were encouraging their people to do. When “the others” are dehumanised, we become indifferent to their suffering and find it easier to justify hurting, deceiving or killing them. We interpret everything they do through the filter of our dehumanising beliefs, and every action of ours that comes from this perspective is likely to make the other side feel justified in their dehumanised view of us.

So if we find ourselves dehumanising an individual or group of people, how can we restore our sense of empathy so that we can start the process of reconcilation? Here is an exercise derived from NLP that uses ‘dissociation’ (to reduce angry or upset feelings to the point where we can think straight) and ‘perceptual positions’ to help us imagine their perspective. 

The exercise takes account of the idea that everyone has their own view of the world, and that truth is not a monopoly of one individual, belief system or people – especially when it comes to value judgements.

Before you start I want to make sure you understand this: it’s your responsibility to choose the intensity of the issue that you want to deal with. You might want to try out the process on something small before you go tackling the most upsetting conflicts in your life. And remember, you can stop whenever you want.

1. Think of a person or group that you feel angry or upset with. Imagine them facing you, at a comfortable distance. Notice the issue between you. What image, sounds or feelings do you get when you think of the issue?

2. Move around until you are beside them – at a comfortable distance, but facing the same way, so that you are both looking at the issue. This shift in itself may bring about a change in how you feel about the issue or about the ‘other’.

3. In your mind, float up above the issue, so that you are looking down at you, the issue, and the ‘other’. The higher up you float, the less intensity of emotion you will feel. Float up until you reach a comfortable height.

4. Cautiously, float down towards the ‘other’ – only as quickly as you can still feel calm and resourceful. Remind yourself, “Just like me, this person has their own perspective on the world. Just like me, they are dealing with the world as best they can.”

5. When you are ready, float down into the body of the other person. See the issue through their eyes, as they see it. Experience how they feel about the issue, and what they believe about it. What must be true for them in order to behave the way they have been?

6. Now turn and look back at you, from the perspective of the ‘other’. Notice how you appear from this perspective. How does the other person see you? What do they believe about you?

7. When you have learned what you need to learn, float out of the ‘other’ and back into yourself, bringing all that you have learned back with you. Take as long as you need to integrate this new perspective.

8. How is the issue different? What do you feel and believe about the ‘other’ now?


A couple of caveats and observations:

  • Be careful who you do this exercise with. Remember all those novels and movies where psychological profilers get inside the mind of a serial killer and end up damaged (Thomas Harris’ Red Dragon being the obvious example)? Only try this with regular human beings who you have ended up in dispute with.  
  • This process will work best when you ‘become’ the other in a method acting kind of way. The information you are after is not what you would do if you were in their place, because your belief system may be different. What you are looking for is how they see the world.  
  • Remember, though, that your intuitions about what they believe and feel is only ever going to be a guess – a hypothesis that you need to check against the evidence of their behaviour. Your intuitions might be wrong.

Nevertheless, you will gain a lot better understanding of the situation, and have more chance of resolving it, if you do this exercise than if you don’t.

Empathy is the only sure way to achieve peace

One thought on “Empathy is the only sure way to achieve peace

  • Hi Andy

    Excellent entry, in my opinion. It’s a subject I was thinking about for my own "NLP and the News" section, but couldn’t think how best to tackle it.

    I thought the initial discussion gave a good lead in, and the exercise was even better – for me. I found Step 2 extremely powerful, AND I enjoyed the whole thing.

    Elegant, easy and effective. What more could you ask for.


    Be well

    Andy B.

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