Going for the good

Empathic understanding has four key characteristics:

  1. the Other is seen as a complex individual
  2. and that’s ok – differences are accepted
  3. the Other is entitled to full human rights
  4. strength and strategies to do the emotional work involved in 1-3.

I have started a new project that takes my empathy project into work with professionals in the field of conflict transformation. The Other, in this context, may be someone who has injured you or even killed people dear to you.

At our first workshop we agreed on ‘empathic understanding’ as what we’re aiming at in changing the empathy dynamics in conflict situations.

For me, the shift from doing the research to applying it involves a letting go of academic detachment. I am enjoying the change!

As an academic, I usually have to steer away from moral judgements in my work – we have to avoid the ‘prescriptive’, as we call it, and stick with the ‘descriptive’. In linguistics, this is important because we want to see how grammar is changing; making judgements about which changes are good and which are bad is not our job, but sometimes it crept in sideways. Several years ago, an American academic and I found that we had different views on sentences like: everyone remembers their first day at school. In British English, this now sounds acceptable but, at that time, it didn’t work in American English and would have to be: everyone remembers his or her first day at school, using singular pronouns to obey the changing ‘rule’ and putting both male and female to be inclusive. When it came to our joint writing, we couldn’t be detached and just observe the change but had to make a decision on which to use.

When I chose to study empathy, it became more difficult to make it an academic concept detached from judgements about right or wrong, good or bad. For some people, engaging in empathy is always a moral choice, undertaken in order to ‘do good’ of some sort. I tried for a more neutral version. I define empathy as about trying to understand the Other in their world and, as such, neither essentially good nor bad. Moral judgements come in when we choose how to use that understanding of the Other — empathy can be used to plan a crime or to provide compassionate support.

In conflict transformation work, people work to change the way people relate to each other in conflict, from the Other as enemy towards an empathic understanding of the Other as a rich, complex person. Going for the good, no question.

The image is from Pronomes (pronouns)  by Ana Vieira, Lisbon, 2011

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Comments
3 Responses to “Going for the good”
  1. The Fan in Seat G17 says:

    That’s interesting on a one-to-one basis – just wondering, given the controversy around the new Kathryn Bigelow movie ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ about the hunt for Bin Laden, how that might relate to intelligence agents using empathy in interrogation in pursuit of conflict transformation at the broader level? Is that always for the moral good? Is that determined by the victors?

  2. ea.sandie@talktalk.net says:

    Very interesting to see this new focus away from an academic interest in empathy towards the application of it to help bring about change in the way people relate to others including those who may have harmed them.

  3. Interesting, complex, and worthwhile work..

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