Empathy and ideology

‘More elections have been won by the practice of empathy than the possession of ideology.’

If I were setting questions for an exam in political organization and the art of winning elections, that would be the quote that I would require students to discuss, to make them think about elections and twenty first century politics.

Erich Fromm described the practice of empathy well when he said we should try to see the difference between our picture of a person and his behavior, as it is distorted by our interests, needs and fears, and the person’s reality as it exists for them regardless of our interests, needs and fears.

If politicians talk about ideology, if they lecture you about what they believe,they are valuing their ideas above you, the person they are talking to. Explaining themselves, putting the focus on the ideas that they’re telling you about, is the equivalent of saying that what they think is more important to them, than you are. You may draw many conclusions from that, but I’m not sure they would be flattering of them. If that sounds complicated, try it in a simpler form. Imagine a conversation where you describe someone who only talks about themselves or the things that matter to them. It probably won’t be complimentary.

The Labour Party leadership debate resembles nothing so much as a classic Karpman drama triangle, but acted out at high speed as each player contests with the others the right to hold or assign the position of persecutor, rescuer and victim. The greater the speed with which the players in a drama triangle either assign or claim roles, the more dysfunctional the relationships appear.

Owen Smith entered the Labour leadership campaign as the classic rescuer,seeking to interpose himself between two players, Angela Eagle and Jeremy Corbyn, who each claimed to be the victim and accused the other of being the persecutor. The absence of empathy, the inability of any of the players to understand that their drama was being played out in front of an audience likely to dismiss all the players as being incapable of healthy behaviour, was and is striking. Even Owen Smith,assuming the role of rescuer, doesn’t appear to have prepared for the classic response to the appearance of a white knight on the stage, as the other players wonder what’s in it for him, and what his hidden motives really are.

Meanwhile, as the players switch roles and hurl charged accusations at each other, the onlooking voters compare the drama to their lives, their needs, their perspectives, and find nothing they can take away. They may think, like me, that the situation cries out for the players to assume the alternative roles assigned to the drama triangle of creator, challenger and coach, but, bluntly, the egos appear to be getting in the way, and the lack of empathy, the inability to understand that there might be good reasons for others thinking the things they do, is frightening.

One thing’s for sure; voters are likely to look at dysfunctional relationships, where factions of the party hurl accusations and each accuse the other of being the persecutor or playing the victim and conclude that they don’t want their lives to be like that.

To paraphrase Erich Fromm, again, any politician must understand that society consists of individuals, and that it is these human beings, rather than an abstract which we call society, whose actions, thoughts, and feelings should be the main focus of the democratic politician who wants to win elections. For those of us who grew up angry and ashamed that a British politician, like Margaret Thatcher, could say that there is no such thing as society, such a statement sounds like heresy. However, it’s the only way of explaining all the evidence that suggests that individuals prioritize, when they make voting decisions, themselves over their understanding of what they think society might most need. A good politician might be able to relate to so many people, to develop an empathic relationship with so many, that they appear to be speaking for all of society, but they are also speaking for a mass of individuals, each voting on the basis of what they think is best for them.

If we want to understand how people make choices at elections, we have to think about them as individuals, not as an aggregate. I’m a coach; I understand the way in which the organizational culture influences the people I work with, but most of all, I understand that the decisions people make are about themselves.You can’t work in a person centred way and not start from that assumption. The surrounding environment is context, and hugely influential, but if you believe in person centred coaching, or psychotherapy, you have to understand that ultimately, it is people making choices, not society. In the work environment, if an individual concludes that the organizational environment is unhealthy ,and decides to leave, they are not making an objective statement of how they disapprove of unhealthy organizations; they are making the best choice for them. The flip side is that individuals with few choices may end up tolerating unhealthy organizations because they are unable to choose to leave. Their unhappiness may manifest itself in other ways, but at heart, the cause is the unhealthy organization, and their lack of choices.

As an aside, if you want to understand people, you need the best possible data about what they’re trying to tell you. When I trained communications staff at Labour Party Head Office in the run up to the 2005 General Election, whatever else was wrong with what I did, I stuck by my understanding, based on research, that remote communication, by phone or internet, is much harder than face to face because you don’t get to read the cues provided by facial expressions and body language.

The idea of a political campaign based around what people say on social media is anathema to me because it is so devoid of nuance.So is the idea of proscribing people from a political party on the basis of what they say on social media. If you want to understand why some of the data we acquire via electronic communications is unreliable, especially polling data, you might want to wonder about the extent to which, face to face, tone of voice and body language might influence both parties to a conversation.

Think again about the idea of empathy. Think about the idea that elections are won not on the basis of what parties believe, but on the basis of what they understand about voters,and what voters understand about them. Not the voters who happen to be party members, but the voters they need to persuade to vote for them.How can we practice empathy without good data,laden with nuance.

Now think about the conversation the Labour Party is obsessed with having with itself about who should lead the Labour Party. To what extent do these conversations engage or involve the electorate,or reflect an understanding of the concerns of individual voters that is not distorted by the narcissism of would be Labour leaders? Stephen Karpman identified what he called the intimacy blocking behaviours,using the acronym CASE





Great politicians achieve an intimate relationship with individual voters because they make sure they avoid any of those four behaviours. The behaviours that are good for relationships with family and friends, are also essential for the modern politician’s relationship with the voter. If you’re a politician and you don’t know the four elements of what Karpman calls the intimacy winners loop, you need to.





I’m not in the business of telling would be Labour leaders what they should do. I’m in the business, as a coach observing from the outside behaviour that I think is unhealthy, of formulating the questions I would ask of them. The first is quite simple. How do you think this behaviour looks to the outside world? Does it look like a cool rational process for deciding political direction and policy, or a particularly dark episode of EastEnders where nothing much happens except everyone argues,and everyone is equally to blame?

Empathy is a practice, a skill. Each of the Labour leadership candidates should be asking themselves, do I have that skill, and,more importantly, how would I evidence that I have that skill.

Those questions aren’t about ideology. They’re questions about empathy; voters are, in my experience, agnostic about ideology provided they believe the politician professing that ideology empathizes with their ambitions and desires.

There are plenty more questions you could ask of the leadership contenders, but the final one I would pose is the one that starts any coaching relationship; do you want to get better at what you do, and do you believe you can? If you only want to be the person you’ve always been, there isn’t a coach in the world can help you.

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