How You Can Learn Empathy from a Book About War

Sun Tzu and Spying on the Enemy

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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Published by The Philosophical Fighter

I love being on a mat. I've trained in Karate, Kickboxing, Judo, Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, Wrestling, and Sumo. I currently teach Jiu Jitsu and Judo at Redemption Martial Arts Academy in Tifton, Georgia. I also love to read, write, and philosophize about life.

7 thoughts on “How You Can Learn Empathy from a Book About War

  1. I definitely must have empathised with someone but never understood it as a tool to de-escalate by understanding how and why a person acts in a way he does. Thank you!
    Also, the verbal judo hyperlink helped me discover something very useful.

  2. Bing-fa (Sun Tzu) is a methodology for preventing conflict and where there is an issue, resolving that issue without conflict. Spies (intelligence gatherers and analysts) point the way to action – and non action in order to prevent an unhelpful intersection, or diffuse an emerging situation. The “ethics” of Bing-fa are all about benevolence and ensuring no harm comes to anyone.

  3. Those who see only militarism in Bing-fa can’t get away from “destroying enemies” or “do whatever you have to win” when there are NO admonitions in Bing-fa that say or even imply that. Cleary was right in seeing that Bing-fa had a Taoist base. War and the taking of lives were quite clearly not what that book was about.

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