Strategic Empathy: A Better Strategy in Ukraine and Marriage

blog post by University of Ottawa Prof. Paul Robinson makes an important point about the need for better strategic thinking concerning the Ukrainian crisis. Robinson advocates “strategic empathy” for producing successful outcomes – understanding your opponent’s thinking before acting. Acting without first understanding how your opponent sees things –  no matter how wrong he might be – is likely to exacerbate the conflict. As Robinson notes in his conclusion, “Moral certitude may be emotionally satisfying, but strategic empathy is far more likely to lead to peace.” I recommend that you read the entire post – it’s not very long – but here are two key paragraphs:

The response of both Russia and Western states to the crisis in Ukraine has been to throw insults at one another and to resort to conspiracy theories. To many in the West, Russian behaviour in Ukraine is the product of a deliberate plan of imperial expansion; to many Russians, the civil war in Ukraine is the result of a long-term American strategy to destabilize and weaken any potential rivals. Within Ukraine, the current government views the war as solely the consequence of Russian aggression, whereas the rebels view themselves as victims of government barbarity. No matter who you are, somebody else is entirely to blame. No effort is made to understand, let alone empathize with the other side’s point of view.

Underlying all this is a sense on both sides of moral righteousness. The division of the world into good guys – us – and bad guys – them – discourages any effort to promote strategic empathy, for the latter comes to be regarded as appeasing evil. But strategic empathy does not require that one concede that the other side is right. Rather, through a better understanding of others’ actions, one increases one’s chances of pursuing successful policies.

Although I was previously unaware of the term “strategic empathy,” this blog’s coverage of Ukraine has had that as its goal. Anyone wanting to better understand the Russian perspective can go back through my past posts here by searching on Ukraine in the search box at the upper right.

I first learned the need for strategic empathy in resolving conflicts with my wife. After an argument, I’d go in another room, pretend I was an actor who had to play her and argue, with convincing emotion, why it was all my fault instead of hers (as it initially appeared to me). I wouldn’t end up agreeing with her perspective, but understanding it was crucial to successfully resolving the argument.

This March, we’ll have been married for 48 years, a feat I doubt we could have accomplished without strategic empathy on both our parts. Even better, the goodwill built up by that approach made the last ten years of our marriage totally argument free. Now, instead of trying to “win” when we have differing opinions, we tend to ask questions to understand why the other sees it the way they do. “Getting curious, not furious” works wonders, and I highly recommend it at both a personal and international level. While none of us can single-handedly change the way nations react to perceived adversaries, each of us has the ability to apply strategic empathy in our interpersonal conflicts. And, if enough of us start doing that, who knows, maybe that success will spread to international conflicts as well?

Martin Hellman

About Martin Hellman

I am a professor at Stanford University, best known for my invention of public key cryptography -- the technology that protects the secure part of the Internet, such as electronic banking. But, for almost 30 years, my primary interest has been how fallible human beings can survive possessing nuclear weapons, where even one mistake could be catastrophic. My latest project is a book with the audacious subtitle "Creating True Love at Home & Peace on the Planet." Its soon to open website explains: https://anewmap.com.
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