Sun Tzu Would Agree With Hillary


Last week, during a speech at Georgetown University, Secretary Hillary Clinton advocated, “…showing respect, even for one’s enemies. Trying to understand and, insofar as psychologically possible, empathize with their perspective and point of view…” As expected a significant number of pundits, professional and otherwise, pounced on her. The statement was dubbed, inane, naïve, and even a sign she had been embraced by the Muslim Brotherhood. Some suggested that she had blown her chances at a successful Presidential run in 2016.

The problem with all of that is…she is right. Sun Tzu said “The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.” To accomplish this requires what Daniel Goleman, Harvard and the FBI would call empathy.
Hilary Clinton is a diplomat who clearly understands that in order for us to influence and/or defeat the enemy, we must understand the enemy. One of the most effective, yet underutilized ways to do this is to demonstrate empathy. Hostage negotiators know that empathy is the observation or identification of, not with, another’s perspective. It does not mean that you have to like or agree with the other side.

Harvard authors Robert H.Mnookin, Scott R. Peppet and Andrew S. Tulumell in their book, Beyond Winning: Negotiating to Create Values in Deals and Disputes note that, “Empathy is not about being nice…empathizing with someone, therefore, does not mean agreeing with or necessarily liking the other side”. If you do not understand the enemy’s worldview, you are not going to understand them. If you do not understand them, you are not going to be as successful in combating them. The main goal is to get beyond surface level understanding to deeply understanding the world view of the other side.

Empathy helps us to map the terrain for success by teaching us the position the enemy is in, who they have to influence, why their decisions/actions make sense (to them) and what might move them. By understanding those factors we are in a better position to bargain, if there is bargaining to be done. If there is no bargaining to be done, force is always an option. Dialogue when possible. Destruction when necessary.

Whether she implied that empathy should be used at the expense of other tools when dealing with our enemies is open to debate but suggesting that empathy be part of the discussion is smart thinking. The pundits would benefit from understanding that there should be a parallel approach when dealing with our enemies. By using military and diplomatic components in synchronization, we are in a better position to achieve the desired results.
As negotiators (by virtue of the fact that she is diplomat, Secretary Clinton is a negotiator) we do not use empathy because we are nice people who want to hug it out with the other side. We use empathy because it works. Kudos Secretary Clinton. Sun Tzu would approve. Empathy makes rain. Sometimes it brings lightening.


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About The Author

Derek Gaunt is lecturer, author of Ego, Authority, Failure, and trainer with 29 years of law enforcement experience, 20 of which as a team member, leader and then commander of hostage negotiations teams in the Washington, DC metropolitan area. As a member of the Black Swan Group, he is a negotiation trainer and personal coach. His training has helped leaders and their organizations increase their performance by changing the way they think about communicating one person to another.