Israel vs. Hamas - Try a Little Mirror Neuron Diplomacy
Wednesday, July 30, 2014 at 8:01AM
Mark Goulston

First seek to understand and then be understood- Stephen Covey

 Without truly understaning each other’s position and more importantly understanding how each side came to believe, draw conclusions and view the world, there is little hope for a lasting peace between Israel and the PLO and especially its more extreme Hamas faction.

If you break down the word “understand” into “under” + “stand” it means what truly lies “under” the “stand” (or position) that a person takes is taking.  When two sides take a stand without understanding what lies beneath it, you essentially have two sets of “tails wagging dogs.”  And a set of wagging tails hard-wired to growling mouths is not likely to lead to an agreement any time soon.  Furthermore, any agreement made by two tails wagging dogs is not likely to last.

 What should patently and painfully be obvious about the Israeli and Hamas conflict is that each side puts a tremendous amount of energy into stating and justifying their stand while neither side makes any effort at trying to understand how the other came to that stand.

Why is that?

Something we are beginning to appreciate from the world of neuroscience is the role that mirror neurons play in human interaction, connection, communication, cooperation and collaboration.

Mirror neurons were discovered in Macaque monkeys in the late 1980’s and were first called “monkey see, monkey do” neurons because they seem involved when monkeys imitate each other.  They have since been discovered in humans and appear to play a role in imitation, learning and empathy and when defective a role in autism (where individuals are not able to understand social cues).

Where they come into play in the current conflict is that taking a stand begets taking a stand, digging heels in begets digging heels in and belligerence begets belligerence.  The opportunity that is missing is that understanding or to quote Covey, “seeking to understand” begets reciprocal “seeking to understand.”

Why is it that hard liner Israelis and Hamas are so resistant to deeply and genuinely understanding each other?

To genuinely and truly understand another’s position means to:

a)    let go of your attachment to your own (because you can’t seek to understand another’s position while at the same moment hold tenaciously to your own)

b)   run the risk of modifying your position once you come back from understanding the other’s

Therefore seeking to understand the other’s position might lead to relinquishing the tenacity with which you hold your own. 

Superficially softening your position feels counterintuitive if you want to come from a dominant place.  However what neuroscience and mirror neurons would suggest is that letting go of your hard line will not make you more vulnerable, it will make you more approachable.

History gave us a great example of taking that approach when Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev were at a standstill in tough negotiations with both their heels dug in.  And what did Reagan do to break the stalemate? Reagan invited Gorbachev to, “Call me Ron.”  

And the result? The Cold War ended.

Might a little mirror neuron diplomacy work in the Middle East? Might it work between Putin and Obama?

Might it even work in your marriage?

Article originally appeared on Heartfelt Leadership (
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