The following analysis considers empathy in humanitarian negotiations along four main axes, centering the perspective of the humanitarian practitioner on each axis. First, there is the empathy of the humanitarian actor for their interlocutor—referring here to conflict parties including both state and non-state actors.Footnote 6 Second, there is the empathy of the humanitarian actor for the civilian population. Third, there is the interlocutor’s empathy (or lack thereof) for this same civilian population, which the humanitarian actor can appeal to and seek to strengthen. Fourth, there is the interlocutor’s empathy for the humanitarian actor, which the humanitarian may seek to cultivate.Footnote 7 As we consider each axis and its interaction with the other axes, we attend to empathy’s role and articulate some possible implications for humanitarian work, including the relevance of international legal rules and norms in the negotiation context. While the analysis is not centered on legal questions, we include this dimension because the humanitarian negotiations literature routinely juxtaposes an ‘objective’ (legal) dimension with the more ‘subjective’ or emotional components.
Axis 1: The humanitarian actor’s empathy for their interlocutor
There are numerous reasons why it is desirable for a humanitarian actor to feel empathy for the conflict parties with whom they engage to protect and assist civilian populations. One of Grace’s humanitarian respondents describes this form of empathy thus: ‘That means you are able to put your feet in the shoes of the other party. If you cannot understand the rationale behind your interlocutor’s behavior, it will be very difficult’ (Grace, 2020b, p. 27). A 2004 handbook by Humanitarian Dialogue instructs that, to truly understand an interlocutor’s point of view, humanitarians must engage in ‘a real act of empathy that tries to imagine their ideology, their experiences, their objectives and their feelings’ (Mancini-Griffoli and Picot, 2004, p. 122). In this regard, empathy can help humanitarians anticipate the expectations and reactions of their interlocutor (Mancini-Griffoli and Picot, 2004, p. 122; Lepora and Goodin, 2013). The Handbook presents empathy as a tool that can bolster humanitarians’ ability to discern an interlocutor’s self-perceived needs and interests, building trust and a predictable relationship. Interests are presented as the most important thing to identify, since they are the ultimate motive for negotiating and thus inform the decisions that negotiators make (Mancini-Griffoli and Picot, 2004, p. 62).
Challenges arise because the interlocutor may have a multiplicity of (potentially conflicting) interests, some of which are shaped by organisational and social group belonging (Mancini-Griffoli and Picot, 2004, p. 62). Conflict actors might not even know their own interests, and they could purposely obscure their true interests from humanitarians. Propensity for obfuscation is potentially heightened when a conflict actor deduces that a given interest will be unpalatable to humanitarians (Ibid., p. 62). This suggests that humanitarians may run into problems where they adopt a moral stance on a given issue—and we would inquire whether this applies to situations where humanitarians suggest or imply that international law has been violated—leaving humanitarians with a lack of information as conflict parties withhold. Humanitarians may also confront obstacles where they make interlocutors feel unappreciated or treat them as adversaries. Fisher and Shapiro denote ‘appreciation’ and ‘affiliation’ as two core concerns of all negotiators that must be addressed (along with autonomy, status, and role) (2005, p.19). Parties who do not feel appreciated, they warn, will become angry and impatient; this could lead to negative reactions (Ibid). Interlocutors who are treated as adversaries, furthermore, may feel indignant, disgusted and resentful; this makes them prone to ‘go it alone’ (Ibid).
A point that has already been raised in this analysis is that there are also limits to empathy, and this is especially important to consider with respect to engagement with conflict parties. Here, humanitarians must exercise sound judgment about appropriate levels of proximity and intimacy. If one over-identifies with the worldview of an interlocuter, one might acquiesce with problematic behavior and be coopted or made complicit (Mancini-Griffoli and Picot, 2004, p. 122). In this respect, the HD Handbook differentiates empathy from sympathy. ‘Heartfelt sympathy’ is presented not only as unnecessary, but also as something which might lead to a sort of humanitarian Stockholm Syndrome in which humanitarians relinquish their own values (Mancini-Griffoli and Picot, 2004, p. 122). Instead, the Handbook states that in many situations the form of empathy that is needed is cognitive, one that permits an ‘objective intellectual understanding of a counterpart’s reasoning’ (Ibid., p. 122). This linking of empathy to a more rational form of assessment points to a possible circularity in this guidance. While the Handbook suggests that ‘real empathy’ allows humanitarians to discern the interests and needs of their interlocutor, its practical instructions on how to be empathetic circle back to an exercise of identifying their interests. In any event, the mischief being prevented here is the problem of self-loss, a scenario in which humanitarians over-identify with a conflict actor. The HD Handbook deems self-loss to arise when empathy edges towards sympathy (Ibid., p. 122). However, as shown in the examination of the science of empathy in Part one, while empathy may engender feelings of sympathy, the two are distinct. As we discuss below, the task of the humanitarian is thus to be mindful and aware of this distinction, and to develop their emotion regulation skills.
Implications for humanitarian work
Rules, norms and laws may be perceived by humanitarians as interfering with empathy. Too much empathy for an interlocutor, particularly in terms of affective empathy, may equally lead humanitarian actors to abandon the humanitarian principles and to look the other way when confronted with IHL violations. One might imagine a scenario where humanitarians are convinced of the righteousness of the struggle of a particular armed group (against an oppressive or authoritarian state that is committing far worse violations, for example) and this leads humanitarians to take armed group assertions at face value or to not inquire into potential IHL violations or criminal activity by the armed group in question. The Humanitarian Dialogue Handbook flags this problem indirectly when it proposes that unbounded empathy could lead to humanitarian complicity or the condoning of problematic behaviors by others (Mancini-Griffoli and Picot, 2004, p. 122). Creative approaches that adapt IHL rules to connect with the cultural beliefs and norms of particular conflict parties may allow empathy and IHL to interact harmoniously, though it should be noted that emerging research on such efforts shows that this can be quite complex work (Grace 2020a; Cismas and Heffes 2020). Amongst other challenges, grounding IHL rules in local cultural norms demands sustained engagement and it requires sophisticated interlocutors or translators who can bridge different worlds.
In order to engage effectively with armed interlocutors and advocate persuasively on behalf of civilian populations, individual humanitarian actors need to strengthen the cognitive elements of empathy, including their perspective-taking faculties. This refers to the process in which an individual views a situation from another’s point of view. Doing so can help humanitarians to mitigate biases, overcome prejudices, and center the agency of affected populations. Understanding the emotional state, interests, intentions, and motivations of armed actors with whom humanitarians engage can also build and sustain trust as well as improve communication over time. This has its limits, however, and humanitarians must discern how and when perspective-taking is useful. Further, as discussed in Part one, studies indicate that the ability to express and convey empathic capacity is critical in relationship building. These points will be elaborated upon in Axis 3, which again implicates perspective-taking and empathy conveyance.
Axis 2: The humanitarian actor’s empathy for the civilian population
What are the feelings that humanitarians have, or should have, towards populations they assist? How and why is it important for them to understand the affective and cognitive states of populations in need? This would seem simple on the surface, as it is the desire to alleviate human suffering that lies at the heart of the humanitarian endeavor. However, even if all the ‘right’ feelings are in place and humanitarians are galvanized to act, it may not be altogether clear in a given situation which course of action would meaningfully alleviate human suffering. By accepting restrictions on their movement and limiting the delivery of aid to certain areas so that they can reach civilians in other areas, humanitarians could unwittingly end up harming those who are not helped (Grace, 2020b, p. 37). While impartial humanitarianism is premised upon selecting the ‘most vulnerable’ individual or groups, it may be that those selected are not perceived to be particularly vulnerable by others in the local setting (Grace, 2020a, p. 87). Even where vulnerable populations are correctly identified, delivering services to them could still be problematic where it disturbs the local power balance (Grace, 2020a, p. 87). A further issue that might arise is whether humanitarian empathy for the affected population influences how humanitarians navigate limitations in their operating environments. That is, humanitarian decision-making about whether to remain in a constrained environment, or to instead cease operations when conditions become too difficult, could be influenced by empathy for certain segments of the affected population. In such situations, empathy for those who appear especially vulnerable might cloud an analysis of actual needs—and of who could most productively be helped or best served by a continued humanitarian presence (and see discussion of impartiality, below).
Building on the above, there are downsides to empathy along this axis that humanitarian actors need to be aware of before they find themselves in settings in which harm to civilians is particularly grievous or shocking. Similar to both Bloom and Prinz’s more general critiques of empathy, (Breithaupt 2015, p. 6) identifies several problems with humanitarian empathy for populations in need. He finds that humans tend to be more empathetic towards those with acute problems, rather than chronic ones, and that it is easier to empathize with someone who is undergoing change instead of stagnating. While the former issue may not be so problematic for humanitarian protection work in emergency settings, the possibility that humanitarians would become frustrated with those they are helping when change fails to materialize—and humanitarians thus find themselves trapped in the world of those they help—merits attention (2015, p. 6). Adopting the motif of a ‘scene of empathic engagement’, (Breithaupt 2015, p. 8) proposes that in practice humanitarians are not only empathizing with those they are helping. Instead, humanitarians insert themselves (or an imaginary helper) into the equation, introducing an agent whose presence denotes the potential for things to change or improve. Three main risks arise here: self-loss of the humanitarian, associated with Stockholm Syndrome or over-identification and an inability to take a stand; taking sides, which deepens divisions between the person being helped and others and leads to ‘victimhood contests’; and the derivation of ‘sadistic empathy’, or vicarious pleasure from another’s misfortune, which confirms the need for the helper (Breithaupt, 2015, pp. 10–13). This leads Breithaupt to argue for a humanitarianism without empathy, which instead finds its motivation to act in an inclusive concept of ‘we’ that does not center the empathy of the empathizer (p. 14). As noted, the concept of self-loss also arises in connection with Axis 1, where it is accompanied by a warning that overly-empathic humanitarians risk losing themselves in a conflict party’s worldview.
Others champion sympathy as more pro-social than empathy. Responding directly to Breithaupt’s argument, Adloff counters that when ‘empathy finds expression as sympathy, it can trigger action’, and that ‘compassion’ is stirred by those who are innocent or especially vulnerable (2015, pp. 17–20). These differing perspectives attest to a lack of conceptual clarity and competing views on empathy’s desirability, showcasing the need for more attention to be paid to how these dynamics play out in humanitarian protection work and specifically in the context of frontline humanitarian negotiation.
Implications for humanitarian work
An examination of the humanitarian actor’s feelings for the populations they seek to assist highlights the importance of cultivating a particular skillset relating to handling human emotions: emotional regulation. Humanitarians and frontline negotiators will experience empathy by virtue of being human and the nature of humanitarian protection work, which entails proximity to suffering. Further, in many instances humanitarian staff are local actors, working in their own communities. As such, they may feel an even greater connection to (some segments of) affected populations. Humanitarians thus need to be competent in dealing with their own emotions and, in particular, with a surplus of emotion in situations where failure to do so could cloud their judgment and compromise their impartiality. Indeed, the IHL requirement that humanitarian relief be delivered impartially may present a challenge for humanitarian empathy. Impartiality requires humanitarians to set aside who they might have more feelings for, and to deliver aid purely based on need. We might recall here Prinz’ argument against empathy, which highlights the risk of preferential treatment and biases that include ‘cuteness effects’ (2011, pp.227–30). There is arguably some tension here with the notion of humanity,Footnote 8 which galvanizes humanitarians to act, and also with deeply held beliefs in the humanitarian community that the suffering of victims of war underpins the humanitarian presence in the conflict zone. Further, overly emotive appeals based on the distress of the civilian population may impede progress in negotiations with conflict actors. This is elaborated upon in the analysis of the next axis.
Axis 3: The interlocutor’s empathy for the civilian population
The third axis concerns the empathy (or lack thereof) of the armed actor for the civilian population under their control, which humanitarians can appeal to and seek to cultivate. Humanitarians may attempt to gain access to a rebel-controlled area, for example, by engaging the armed actor’s humanity for the civilian population that is suffering from violence and lack of assistance. One problem that arises here is that some conflict actors such as autocratic governments may not be bothered by—indeed, they may actively wish for—the suffering of vulnerable populations (Grace, 2020b, p. 26). Not all, however, is lost. Studies have shown that in circumstances where an individual cannot empathize with another, third party actors can build relational empathy between such individuals by: signaling their own empathic capacity; making the parties feel seen and heard; and by leveraging insights from their own relationship with the party whose empathy they wish to appeal to. In this scenario, humanitarians might activate their own empathic capacity for the interlocutor (Axis 1), to assess and appeal to the latter’s relevant interests. One could argue, for example, that a lack of health care in a given area could lead to an epidemic, which would in turn harm the conflict actor in charge of the area, and their troops (Mancini-Griffoli and Picot, 2004, p. 106). Even where armed actors are responsive to appeals relating to human suffering, they might still worry that humanitarians granted access will witness military preparations they are making (Mancini-Griffoli and Picot, 2004, p. 62). Related fears could include the concern that humanitarians support an organization who is opposed to them, or that the humanitarian’s organization is linked to the state (Mercy Corps, 2018, pp. 21–22). Empathic engagement by the negotiator with the aim of building a trusting relationship with the interlocutor may serve to allay such fears.
Implications for humanitarian work
In certain circumstances, IHL may be brought into the conversation where emotional appeals fail because the empathy of conflict parties for the civilian population is limited or non-existent. Appealing to IHL and legal entitlements may work better where the legal rules align with the rational interests of the conflict party in question. Further, the humanitarian negotiator’s empathy for their interlocuter (Axis 1) may be essential in ascertaining those interests. If IHL prohibits the conduct that the interlocutor wishes to engage in, however, appeals to law could undermine the relationship. The CCHN manual makes a useful observation about the potential limitations of humanitarian advocacy around a right of access to populations in need. Asserting that humanitarians have a right to operate in a particular setting could fall on deaf ears, the manual argues, and interfere with opportunities for fostering trust and relationship building with the actors in question (Centre of Competence on Humanitarian Negotiation, 2019, p. 90). As mentioned in Part two, the manual therefore calls for a shift from a humanitarian “entitlement” to “engagement” approach in certain contexts. This redirects attention away from the interlocutor’s feelings for the civilian population, to feelings for the humanitarian actor (see also Axis 4).
Axis 3 again requires humanitarian actors to engage their perspective-taking faculties. As noted in Axis 1, part of the skill involved in perspective-taking is to know whether, when and how to use it. There may be situations where emotional appeals to a conflict party about civilian harm fail because the relevant conflict party has limited or non-existent empathy for the civilian population or where the interlocutor is empathetic but lacks authority and the ability to influence others within their organization, be that a state or non-state armed group. In such instances, advocating on the basis of rules and norms—including standards drawn from IHL and public international law—could make more headway. Accordingly, this axis of relationship requires a delicate balance in terms of using empathy: the humanitarian actor must first ascertain the armed actor’s feelings for the civilian population and their motivations in harming them or blocking humanitarian access (Axis 1). Where armed actors are trying to impede humanitarian access to vulnerable populations, part of the emotion work required may be to allay the interlocutor’s fears, such as the concern that humanitarians are aligned with someone who has competing interests with them. The negotiator’s ability to assuage such anxieties is closely tied to the final axis.
Axis 4: The interlocutor’s empathy for the humanitarian actor
The fourth axis relates to the interlocutor’s empathy for the humanitarian actor, their position, and the situation they are in. This must be actively cultivated as part of wider trust and relationship building efforts. The Mercy Corps Playbook advises that the team of humanitarian negotiators should be constructed with an awareness of how interlocutors will perceive their intersectional identities, including age, ethnicity, sex, religion, and ability (Mercy Corps, 2018, p. 10). The CCHN manual for frontline humanitarian negotiation recommends appealing to shared human experiences and making appropriate cultural references (Centre of Competence on Humanitarian Negotiation, 2019, p. 70). The manual identifies a common practice of referring to ‘agreed facts of convergent norms’ that apply in a particular setting, such as sports, food or music, which might have no direct relation to the negotiation topic at hand (Centre of Competence on Humanitarian Negotiation, 2019, p. 70). What is noteworthy about this axis of empathy is that it may generate progress where the second and third axes—which both concern empathy for the affected civilian population—stall. Instead of insisting on a ‘right of access’ that is grounded in humanitarian principles or IHL, frontline humanitarian negotiators increasingly rely on an engagement approach that prioritizes relationship-building with conflict actors to gain access to populations in need (Centre of Competence on Humanitarian Negotiation, 2019, p. 90).
Implementation power may be a crucial thing to consider when identifying appropriate interlocutors for humanitarian negotiation in armed conflict. This issue intersects with questions of empathy in several ways. The HD Handbook points out that no matter how open an interlocutor is—that is, how receptive they are to humanitarian requests—any agreement made with them will be for naught unless they possess the power and authority to implement it (Mancini-Griffoli and Picot, 2004, p. 51). The Handbook offers the example of a high-level actor guaranteeing humanitarians safe passage through checkpoints manned by members of their armed group, while the latter want to block humanitarian access and do not consider themselves governed by the high-level agreement. In this kind of scenario, empathic engagement with higher-level actors may fail to bring about meaningful results, underscoring the importance of a humanitarian’s attunement to how they are perceived, by whom and with what implications.
Implications for humanitarian work
The final axis highlights how international laws and norms may need to take a backseat when humanitarians believe they can make more progress by building and maintaining a good relationship. In certain contexts, humanitarians are advised to avoid law in order to ingratiate themselves with their interlocutor, establish their own legitimacy and build trust. This will especially be the case when a given IHL rule is at odds with the interest and needs of the conflict actor. Further, there is untapped potential in getting humanitarians to elicit more empathy from conflict actors on humanitarians’ commitment to their own values, principles, and rules. The social dimension of empathy is especially relevant here. In addition to understanding another’s beliefs and feelings, empathy provides insight into how one’s own actions, including appeals to legal rules or principles, may be understood and felt by others (e.g., affected populations, state actors, armed groups, donors, and the wider public). Here, expressive empathy, the individual’s ability to convey their empathic capacity through, for example, facial expression and body language, is of critical importance in the process of relationship building.