Choosing Empathy

How does empathy help peacebuilding?

Empathy is one of those buzzwords that is making the rounds in the professional worlds I hang out in. Although I’ve long been interested in it, I now realize that it has to be at the heart of our work.

Recent research reported in the New York Times on July 12, 2015 suggests that we can choose to become more 12gray-blog427empathetic and become more effective in solving wicked (and other) problems as a result.

Those findings reinforce two central conclusions in my own work, the first of which has been around for a long time, while we are just beginning to explore the other.


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I did not focus explicitly on empathy all that much in Security 2.0, although it is clearly a key part of any new social or political paradigm. Since I finished writing the book earlier this year, the research in the Times article and elsewhere have convinced me to make empathy a central part of my work going forward.

First, empathy is a necessary–if not sufficient–precondition for solving any of today’s seemingly intractable problems. As everything from the attempt to defeat ISIS to the seemingly never ending struggle to end racism in the United States, it has become increasingly clear that we have to convince people that cooperative problem solving is the best approach. And, I cannot convince you of that unless I can first put myself in your mental “shoes” and begin to understand why you believe what you do–and I don’t.//////

Second, we have begun working on the links between neuroscience and peacebuilding. That work is still in its infancy, but these findings on empathy reinforce something our scientific colleagues have been finding in the results of the experiments they are conducting their labs. We used to think that our brains were hardwired and that most people’s mental capacities decrease as they age. Now, it is becoming clear that our minds are more “plastic” than we used to think. Core mental functions which we used to think of as being fixed in stone now appear to be more flexible and changeable, including our ability to put ourselves in other people’s shoes, especially those we disagree with.


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