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Stephen White
© Feng Yu

Many adjectives have been used to describe the attitudes of groupings which populate the further extremities of the political spectrum. Groupings like the Neo-cons and alt-right on the right and the Momentum movement on the left.  In centrist circles, the adjectives used are mainly derogatory. One which is not widely used is Empathic.

Which is a mistake.

For most negotiators, empathy is a warm and friendly virtue; in a conflict situation, it is the ability to put oneself in the other person’s shoes and gain a greater understanding of the context in which they operate and the feelings they experience. We don’t associate empathy with political outliers. We think they are single-minded and self-centred – they know what they believe is right, other views are a priori defective and whoever stands in the way gets trampled. Unlike the centrists who are much more prone to put themselves in the other person’s shoes - and then feel pity or sorrow. This is the confusion of empathy and sympathy, and when it happens the result can be strategically catastrophic.

Let’s take two examples from the news over the last week.

  1. Iran

The European view of the USA terminating its association with the Iran deal is that Iran is complying with the terms of the deal, that although it is flawed the current deal is better than no deal, and that it is consequently ‘unfair’ to unilaterally terminate and outrageous for the US to threaten that European companies doing business with Iran in the future will be sanctioned, causing even more economic deprivation for the Iranian public (and not forgetting reduced profits for the Europeans). In summary - Sympathy for the status quo.

The Trumpian view is that the history of Persia/Iran over millennia results in objective setting which is super-long term. Achievement of Iran’s goal – the creation of an Iranian hegemony in the Middle East - is not planned to happen in months or years, but rather after decades or centuries. The current deal helps Iran achieve this plan because of its so-called sunset clauses.  Given this empathic analysis, and a total absence of sympathy, Trump’s advisors ask a simple question – how do we best counter the Iranian objective? Their answer - tear up the existing deal and play dirty.

  1. The Parliamentary Labour Party

Blairite Labour MPs and their fellow travellers have a deep concern about the policies and tactics of the Labour left.  Although most of them were elected by traditional Labour supporters they fear that they could now be deselected by local party activists, many of whom are Momentum members newly affiliated to the Labour Party. But they are intellectually moved by the democratic nature of the party machine. If the new members want the party to be more left-facing, then that is democracy in action. Their hope is that an appeal to reason and an effective use of rhetoric will reinvigorate traditional Labour members and persuade the radicals to a more reasonable point of view. Sympathy for the democratic process.

Len McCluskey in a speech yesterday takes a view which is empathic but without sympathy. As General Secretary of Unite, he speaks for 1.5 million members most of whom are the traditional Labour supporters who voted for the Blairite MPs previously. His analysis of these MPs is that they perceive themselves to be weak and vulnerable, having tried and failed to unseat Jeremy Corbyn as their leader. They are frightened of the Momentum hierarchy because it acts like a bully and they haven’t found an effective antidote. Given that Mr McCluskey wants to see a Corbyn/ Momentum victory his advisors ask a simple question – what is the best way of dealing with these centrist MPs? The answer is not to be sympathetic to their plight; to understand their dilemma and try to persuade them to move to the left, but rather to call them ‘stale’ and confess that he will shed no tears if they are deselected.

What do we learn as commercial negotiators? Reflect on the folly of confusing empathy with sympathy. Many years ago, a boss of mine reminded me that when the chips are down our business colleagues will always act in their own interests, not ours, no matter how good a relationship we think we have or how many good turns we have done for them. Based on this week’s news I think he was right.

Stephen White
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