In collaboration with the United States Institute of Peace (USIP), the Center for Empathy in International Affairs held a consultation with 15 academics, experts and mediators in Washington DC on 14 March 2016.

The consultation addressed empathy in conflict resolution, building on insights from CEIA’s March 2016 consultation on empathy in mediation, and expanded on those discussions with new insights, issues and case examples.

Participants included individuals from a range of institutions including: Alliance for Peacebuilding; Center for International Governance Innovation, Canada; Council on Foreign Relations; Institute for the Study of Diplomacy, Georgetown University; Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, University of Notre Dame; School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution, George Mason University; School of Foreign Service, Georgetown University; School of International Service, American University; and the United States Institute of Peace.

The experts views and insights are captured in this CEIA briefing paper: Empathy in Conflict Resolution: If, How and When.

Briefing summary

Empathy has several definitions but can be considered as the practice of imagining or grasping the thoughts, feelings and perceptions of others. As such, it is an essential tool to resolve conflict and to ensure the sustainability of peace. Mediators or facilitators can empathize through finding something within their own character or experience that resonates with the parties. This enables them to forge stronger connections, build trust and increase understanding. Empathizing helps mediators to identify a party’s key concerns and sacred values. In the Colombian peace process, efforts to understand FARC leaders and their perspectives enabled facilitators to identify the nature and source of the group’s core concerns, which could then be addressed, allowing the talks to progress.

Talented diplomats and decision-makers recognize the importance of empathy, but this is constrained by the assumption that states and their leaders behave rationally, dismissive attitudes towards psychological or emotional factors, and a business as usual mindset in foreign policy institutions. Decision-makers may have pre-existing biases, are sometimes reluctant to question assumptions, and their decisions are shaped by exogenous factors.

That said, empathy should be practiced judiciously. Empathizing does not necessarily lead to an improvement in behavior of a party to conflict and there is the risk that in seeking to understand another, we may fail to judge and deal with those who intend to cause harm to others. We should also bear in mind the limits of empathy to transform conflict. In intractable cases such as the Israeli- Palestinian conflict, it is unrealistic to expect empathy-based initiatives to break the deadlock in the absence of other important elements of conflict resolution. Empathizing may even generate an understanding of an adversary that leads to disillusionment about the prospects for peace.

There is a need for an understanding of empathy that goes beyond the standard conceptual frameworks of international politics. Such efforts may draw on behavioral models, such as emotional intelligence, or fields such as social, behavioral and cognitive psychology. Empathizing can be considered as a discrete activity, practiced by a given party, or as a dialectical, interactive activity involving two or more parties, in which the role of dialogue and narrative play an important role.

Looking ahead, more should be done to incorporate empathy into the pedagogy of diplomacy, negotiation and mediation. Measures should be taken to reduce bias against empathy in foreign policy institutions and to encourage scrutiny of beliefs and assumptions. Research is required on when empathizing could change behavior and yield positive outcomes, as well as on the conditions in which it will achieve little or even undermine confidence in peacebuilding. A repository of historical cases and best practices should be compiled. Papers could be researched and published presenting the lens through which a given leader or society sees a particular issue, thus enhancing understanding and expanding the public discourse.

To read the full report click here.

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