Learning Empathy from a Book About War

In a webinar on Tactical Communication put on by the Verbal Judo Institute, the instructor often cited Sun Tzu’s Art of War.

In Verbal Judo, one of the key parts of de-escalation and tactical communication is empathy. Several definitions are floating around, but in essence, empathy is the ability to “recognize, understand, and share the thoughts and feelings of another.” Its literal Greek translation is to be “at” (em) “feelings” (pathy) with another person. In other words, it’s taking their perspective as your own, giving you insight into their mind.

This is paramount when it comes to understanding another person’s behavior.

Chapter 3 of To Kill a Mocking Bird paints a poignant picture of this concept when Atticus attempts to teach Scout: Atticus says that you never really understand a person “until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”

As we discussed Sun Tzu and empathy during the webinar, I had an epiphany. One of the things I remembered most from The Art of War was chapter 13. Master Sun wrote, “Spies are a most important element in water, because on them depends an army’s ability to move,” prompting one commentator (Chia Lin) to write, “an army without spies is like a man without ears or eyes.”

If spies are arguably one of the most essential elements of an army, even to the point of helping to win the war without fighting, then empathy is our spy in the enemy’s camp when it comes to volatile situations with others.

Empathy is our eyes and ears behind enemy lines, informing us as to how and why the other person is acting, and subsequently, how we might dissolve tension without a fight.

Spies operate under the radar, generally blending in with the enemy. Master Sun recommends for leaders to “Be subtle! Be subtle! And use your spies for every kind of business.” Empathy is useful in nearly every setting involving other people.

This might be the workplace where you have to finish a report with that aggravating co-worker. It might be Sunday dinner with the in-laws. How about that training session with the guy who talks too much and wants to show you how many YouTube moves he learned yesterday?

Empathy has a downside. Just as when the spy is discovered and killed (or worse, turned into a counter-spy for the other army), empathy can hinder us from seeing our own needs. It can even lead to being taken advantage of by narcissists and Machiavellians. Be vigilant if you would spy on the enemy. Be wary that your empathy doesn’t hurt you.

As you interact with those around you, take a moment to think about the “why” behind their actions and words. It may help you manage the relationship. Keep empathy in your back pocket, or better yet, close to your heart. As Master Sun said, “Hence it is that which none in the whole army are more intimate relations to be maintained than with spies.”

How has empathy helped you in previous interactions?

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A version of this article was originally posted on my personal blog, http://www.thephilosophicalfighter.com. You can find me on Instagram @thephilosophicalfighter.

Thanks for reading and I look forward to your thoughts in the comments. Feel free to share.


9 thoughts on “Learning Empathy from a Book About War

    1. It certainly can because it helps us understand why other people may think or do the things they do. Thanks for commenting.

  1. I don’t believe empathy is something one stores in one’s pocket. It may be something you could develop but a lot of people have a shortage to begin with. (Psychopaths, sociopaths and pathological narcissists have no empathy at all.) I think empathy is genuine or it isn’t empathy. It happens as an automatic emotional response or it risks coming across as fake.

    There’s a LOT of fake empathy out there. Worked at a call center for some years. One of the things we had to do on a call to get a good evaluation was to “display empathy.” Since they couldn’t evaluate your emotional state objectively, it was defined as making an empathy statement. “Oh! I’m so sorry about that. I can understand how inconvenient that is. Let me fix it for you.” Those exact words or close to them.

    After a customer had heard that a couple of times, they sometimes go angry. “I don’t care about how sorry you are. Just fix the damned thing!” One customer exploded on me after I said I was sorry his service was down (I really was. He’d been thru the ringer.) and ranted and raved for a half hour nonstop. Sometimes all you can do is remain calm yourself and ride out the storm.

    1. I agree with you, Fred, that there is a lack of real empathy across the globe. I am in the Edith Stein/Carl Rogers camp that we can’t “teach” empathy, but we can facilitate it if there is a seed of it in the person.

      I also agree that there are individuals who use empathy for their own benefit, such as psychopaths, etc. This is the dark side of empathy that critics such as Paul Bloom have discussed in the past.

    2. Fred, I agree with your perceptions regarding customer service. People don’t want to hear how sorry we are, (although it is helpful for them to hear that), if there isn’t some kind of action to back it up. I work in a place where I receive some very angry calls, and by the time that they call me they feel like they’ve already been passed around and have lost patience with the process, and they’ve reached a point of threatening to go to the press etc. Part of empathy is simply listening to them as they vent, for when we give them the space to do that they feel readier to receive help. I tell them I’m making notes as they talk, so they know their tirade isn’t for naught. I have observed that often they have been ignored prior to calling me, so listening to them is crucial to de-escalating a tense situation. Of course, bringing in other higher ups is important at that point to get the situation resolved, and not simply shuffle it off.

      Life has so many customer service situations, we don’t really realize it. If we truly listened to people instead of dismissing them, imagine how many situations of bullying could be resolved?

  2. New reader here. Stumbled across your post and I have to say I’m goad I did. I’ve always struggldd with empathy because I tend to be more self-centered and focused on my own emotions rather than the other person, but this has opened my eyes and gave me an idea on how to empathise better. I love how you drew a comparison from such an abstract concept as emotions, to something more palpable like war and tactics. (Thinking now i gotta go read the art of war). Overall a great read. Can’t wait to see more from you

    1. Thanks for reading and commenting. Art of War is a classic. It’s often recommended for business folks as a book about strategy. I think its insights transcend war and business. They can be applied in many other areas too.

  3. What an interesting perspective to bring to empathy! I love how you talk both about how it helps you to see other’s why and also how it can blind us to our own needs. A balance for sure!

    Lovely post!

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