This is the script of this morning’s Thought for the Day on BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme:

This year marks the hundredth anniversary of what is now called GCHQ – the Government Communications Headquarters. During that century the world – including the worlds of communication, espionage and intelligence – has changed radically. Even when I joined as a linguist specialist back in 1980 what we thought of as cutting-edge technology now looks quaint. As the world, driven by technology has developed, so have the intelligence services, their competences and self-understanding.

When I was at Cheltenham, working mainly in Russian and German, the place itself was so secret it didn’t even appear on Ordnance Survey maps. Now they have open days, social media recruitment and lots of other imaginative ways of communicating their existence, preoccupations and value to society.

What haven’t changed, of course, are the basic questions of national security and the need for any country to learn the languages of others. Whereas the need for national security, in one sense, speaks for itself, the “learning the language of others” stuff might not be so obvious. But, effective intelligence work demands that you get inside the head of those you suspect of threatening you, look out through their eyes, listen through their ears, and understand how this shapes or directs their language and behaviour.

Now, there is a risk to this exercise. If you learn about another people and enter into their experience, you begin to comprehend and, sometimes, even sympathise with them. It isn’t quite Stockholm Syndrome, but it is risky. For example, learning about the experiences and historical contexts of my enemy might reframe my understanding of why they behave or speak the way they do. We all speak in codes and the codes depend on common intuitions or understandings.

I think this goes to the heart of being human in society. If empathy gets lost, then we find it difficult to read each other. Instead of being exposed to reality – which is often complex and nuanced – I pigeon-hole or stereotype them and then feel justified in the security of my own trench.

“Loving my neighbour as myself” is neither easy nor obvious. It isn’t something that comes naturally, but demands hard and imaginative work – letting the other slip beyond the box I want to put them in.

I think this is also pertinent in other areas of our common life in these strange times. Instead of lobbing accusations from trenches at those who see the world – or particular policies – differently, a decision to invest in listening, imagining and understanding does not come naturally to most of us. Listen to debates in Parliament this last week and it becomes clear how hard and how important it is that we try.

I might have left GCHQ a long time ago, but the questions it fed me have not gone away.