Empathy has a reputation as a fuzzy, feel-good emotion that many people associate in some vague way with everyday kindness. So it comes as something as a surprise when major political figures start talking about it as a key to resolving violent conflicts and peace building. This was exactly the point that former British Prime Minister Tony Blair made in a recent article in the Guardian.
Now reincarnated as a (rather ineffective) peace envoy in the Middle East, Blair was reflecting on his time as a mediator in the Northern Ireland peace process, which culminated in the Good Friday agreement in 1998. In the article, Blair argues that his success as a mediator was due to his empathy skills: his capacity to understand the suffering of the various parties in the conflict at an ’empathetic level’ and then being able to ‘pass on something of the pain of each side to the other’. He went on to say that what also made peace possible was that unionist leaders such as David Trimble and Ian Paisley, and their Sinn Féin counterparts Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness, gradually got to know each other during the process, ‘and started to look upon each other as human beings with a different perspective, not as enemies mired in evil and incapable of good’. In other words, the empathy began to spread around the negotiating table.
In a follow-up to Blair’s empathic disclosure (which sits uneasily with his less empathic political decisions such as invading Iraq), I was invited on to BBC Radio 4’s Today programme last week to discuss the role that empathy can play in constructing peace in conflict situations. As I point in the following 4-minute interview, it’s important that empathy plays a part not just in talks between leaders, but at the grass-roots, creating reconciliation between neighbours and communities that might have been embroiled in circles of violence for years. So have a listen, and discover why over 1 million Israelis and Palestinians have spoken to each other on a unique peace-building phone line.
Listen here. Or click below.
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Roman Krznaric’s new book, Empathy: A Handbook for Revolution, will be published by Rider Books (Random House) in February 2014. Pre-order here.
2 thoughts on “Can empathy help resolve violent conflicts? Mr Blair thinks so”
Is Blair using empathy as a tool rather than it being a strong trait of his?
Roman, I offer the introduction to a proposal for economic development in an at-risk Muslim community which should illustrate that I agree with your assertion. It was written at the time of public protest over Blair’s plans to lead us to war in Iraq:
“By leaving people in poverty, at risk of their lives due to lack of basic living essentials, we have stepped across the boundary of civilization. We have conceded that these people do not matter, are not important. Allowing them to starve to death, freeze to death, die from deprivation, or simply shooting them, is in the end exactly the same thing. Inflicting or allowing poverty on a group of people or an entire country is a formula for disaster.
These points were made to the President of the United States near the end of 1996. They were heard, appreciated and acted upon, but unfortunately, were not able to be addressed fully and quickly due primarily to political inertia. By way of September 11, 2001 attacks on the US out of Afghanistan – on which the US and the former Soviet Union both inflicted havoc, destruction, and certainly poverty – I rest my case. The tragedy was proof of all I warned about, but, was no more tragedy than that left behind to a people in an far corner of the world whom we thought did not matter and whom we thought were less important than ourselves.
We were wrong.”