2019-06-06 ACTIVISTS #5

Topic: What is your experience of taking part in an Empathy Circle?

In this Empathy Circle participant who have previously taken part in an Empathy Circle will discuss the experience of taking part in the circle.

  • * What do you experience?

  • * What feelings come up?

  • * What do you like?

  • * What do you not like?

  • * What would you wish for?

  • * etc, etc.?


I’ve been slowing working at cleaning it up. It’s slow work but hope to do the whole thing. There are a lot of really good insights share on the empathy circle experience.

Welcome to our empathy circle of empathy activists and experts. This is a group of people who have worked extensively on the topic of nurturing empathy.

We'll start with quick introductions.


I'm Edwin Rutsch director of the Center for Building a Culture of Empathy. For about 12 years I've been working on the topic of empathy doing interviews and all kinds of different projects to build a more empathic society and culture.


I’m a lecture here in the University of Central Florida. I teach Philosophy classes here and I'm writing a book on empathy, on my theory of empathy called relational empathy. It tries to combine a bunch of different definitions from the past 200 years to create a more practical effect, on the way we way we think about empathy. I'm also the founder of Empathy Vision and the Empathy Activation which are two organizations I founded which have similar goals as the Center for Building a Culture of Empathy. My Website is: EmpathyVision.com

We are doing a lot of training, safety training and empathy training for hospitals and construction sites and just kind of roll into other industries. Empathy is it pretty important everywhere.


I am Lou Zweier, I am educator and film maker. I do trainings in communication skills, leadership and conflict resolution. I'm doing a public listening project called Petaluma Conversations here in Petaluma. I've worked with Edwin doing cross political dialogue work with the Empathy Tent for about a year. I'm also one of the partners in a group in Sacramento called the Authentic Leadership Center. We do transformational training there that includes a communication model that has empathic listening in it. We were just together with the Empathy Tent Team at the California Democratic Party convention where we had signs advocating for empathy and our empathy t-shirts. We are working with our team to get empathy into politics.

(Edwin Gives Empathy Circle Introduction)

Our topic for today is about the Empathy Circle practice itself. We will dialogue on the topic of; What is your experience of taking part in an Empathy Circle?

What feelings come up when you take part, what you like about the practice, or don’t like, what you wish for, etc, etc.. Just anything that comes up for you about your experience.

Let’s begin.

Lou to Mark

So my experience of being in an Empathy Circle let me think?

First, it's just inspiring to me. It feels very good when people get together and are willing to sit with each other and listen to each other. Watching people taking the time to do that and really wanting to understand each other and even struggle through whatever difficulty they may have and actually you know reflecting back what people are saying. Many people are not used to doing that. That's inspiring to me to see that happen and it gives me hope, you know, that if people listen to each other more, that we'll have more understanding in the world, and a more connected world. It's inspiring to me, it really moves me whenever I'm in a circle.

I would say a second thing that I experienced, that is pretty significant, is that when I talk about something, I share about something that's real for me and another person reflects back what they're hearing me say and the reflection shows that they're really understanding what I'm saying, I feel seen and I feel cared for in a way that that's very sweet.

When I witnessed others caring for each other in that way, because I do see it as an act of caring to really pay attention to what someone's saying and to try to feed it back to them so that they know that they're understood, those acts of caring give me a lot of hope and inspiration too.

You know the other thing that comes up for me strongly is just about the structure of the circle. I’ve taught communication and conflict resolution skills for a very long time. There are some aspects of the Empathy Circle process, the structure of it, that supports people in hearing each other in ways that are very useful, practical and powerful. I'd like to say a little something more about that. About how the structural elements of the circle how they work that's something that I notice about it too.

These structural elements of the circle promote actually good listening and they promote learning good listening and they do it in a way that's very effective compared to other things other things that I've taught before.

So the structural elements that I find make a big difference are;

· Timed to turn taking - so that there's a forced or enforced mutuality of speaking in the circle. Nobody dominates the conversation because the turns are timed and there's mutuality in it. I think that is a healthy element.

· The listener becomes the speaker, so that just that piece of structural element there's a couple things that does.

o One, It distributes the speaking and listening around the circle because the person has to pick a different person each time.

o Two, is that because the listener has to listen to reflect back they're not sitting there thinking about their judgments and what they want to say and all that. They have to be outside of that in order to reflect back and so when it comes time for them to speak they haven't been sitting there building up lots of stuff that they want you know immediately jump into. I think that causes a little bit more of a reflective stance when people start speaking.

Right before you become the speaker you're the listener you are paying attention to what the other person is saying and you're really focused on that so you're not sitting there focused on all of your judgments and the ways you want to respond and the arguments you want to make and then when it's your turn to speak you're coming in with that. Instead you kind of have to come in blank because you've been listening right before you started speaking. I think that creates a more reflective, a more reflective stance when people start speaking.

o Three, It Slows Everything Down. One more thing is that the fact that there is reflection. So someone's speaking and someone's reflecting that really slows everything down. So while the reflection is happening, both the speaker gets to reflect on what they're saying and the listener gets to reflect on what is being said, and all the rest of the people in the circle have some time to reflect on what's being said. That I think creates a more reflective conversation than the quick and forth the tends to happen in a normal conversation where people sometimes interrupt each other or they're responding right on the heels of what another person says.

I think it creates more reflectiveness on everyone's part.

16:20 Mark to Edwin

It was interesting because I could feel like a bodily resistance building up because I’ve never in this situation before. Sort of like teaching philosophy, you're just sort of like really quick with judgments. I don't think that judgments are necessarily a bad thing at all. This type of circle is useful. I find it useful for certain ends, but certainly there's different ends to be attained and that might involve different sorts of interactions.

There are multiple ends and there's nothing about experience that makes it better outside of the consequence it produces. So the idea that, for instance, to think that being judged and being critical is a negative thing, in philosophy people don't really see that. It’s not that we say something negative about somebody, but being critical, having critical thinking, isn't a bad thing for philosophers. It’s just a matter if it's going to cloud someone's mind so they can't hear. What Lou was talking about, you know, it's conflict resolution that's quite often happening that's where someone's mind is thundering, to say something, and they're not they're not allowed to receive what they're hearing from another person.

There's this idea of making a judgment about when you should listen and not, and if a three-year-old comes up to me and starts talking about calculus, I don't know how they didn't get that language for that. But certainly I wouldn't listen, so there's definitely times and experiences in the flow of everyday experience where these skills are essential, especially with what Lou is doing in conflict resolution.

But I think that the variations of experience allow for different sorts of interactions that would produce different ends.

I began this by talking about my own body resistance; I see it as a good thing, because I feel like a transformation. I don't feel like I'm resistant against it. My mind processes differently than others. People have different minds the way they process you know information too. So when I repeat something back to someone, I want to make sure that I'm sensing what they're saying and trying to hold all my judgments as far as in a certain sense of like a negative way. Not based on what the meaning of what the speaker explained.

What I do as a habit, habits very much inform how we process information, how we deal with around us, how we interact with others. So what Lou is doing in his work, the idea is to break the habit of just coming in and judging someone without listening, especially if there's like a conflict in marriage or between organizations. They need to have those skills. Those skills are useful for certain ends and because experience is so plural and varied there could be very much different sorts of interactions. I just feel like most of my interactions are not like this and the process that I'm having here it's a positive process because it makes me receive information in a different way, because I know I'm gonna have to repeat right back and make sure the person still heard.


Especially like when you are doing in with the political, bringing the left and right together. I suppose that they would walk away but I read some things that people actually really deeply influenced because they have to have that position what you're doing they have to really be active listening to in order to really have the other person be heard and have any transformation take place. Those are the most thundering ideas thoughts and biases we have, a lot of people at least, when it comes to politics. For that end I couldn't imagine any other way of the conversing. You wouldn’t want to go back and forth like a debate that everybody would just walk away.

It is like with Socrates when he'd walk up to people and he'd have a dialogue you know some questions and then Socrates would walk away and the person would walk away but no one changed their minds. I think like when it comes to at least receiving and being able open to change and transformation I think this is a better this is a better format than would be like the Socratic. Because in the Socratic dialogue one person is going to be feeling humiliated because the Socrates giant a beam the is judging the person making them feel smaller. That's one of the things about this notion of support right to feel heard and you feel supportive. You know, I think it's a really the important dynamic that's going on here that's that is crucial.


I really appreciate your listening skills, thank you. It's good archetype to model myself after.

The thing about feeling small or stronger, that is really a lot about the power dynamics in communication. Who's the boss, who's holding the power in any relation? Power enters, always there's always a power dynamic, it can be varied depending on the context but there's a power dynamic. So what this tries to do, I think too, the empathy circles, it doesn’t necessary level the field, but kind of gets rid of the power dynamic. In the sense of intentionally and that goes back to what Lou is talking about the structure. The way an argument, or a conversation, or an empathy circle is structured is crucial.

I've seen a lot of people in philosophy who have created their own philosophy conferences and definitely had that structure in play where it's just not a back and forth. In philosophy like, the person will write a paper on Hume and then the Sartre person will ask the question about Sartre related to Hume and the Heidegger person will ask the question about Heidegger and it’s just a big mess.

There is a great article by the Peter Berger, he keeps saying thunder. It was a phrase yeah um they found

“The son of God is like thunder and it blocks out every other sound in the universe. I'd say the same thing goes with political allegiance and other things which we hold dearly whether right rightly or wrongly.

The last thing is just saying I would just say we talk about later but that's necessary for democracy. If we're gonna talk about democracy in this country it's absolutely necessary this type of an environment.

26:44 Edwin to Lou

I'm really glad that Mark mentioned democracy. I see the empathy circle as sort of a model for democracy. I've been thinking the empathy circle is sort of a framework for democracy. In order for us to participate in a democracy, the tool of an empathy circle is a very powerful effective tool for creating democratic dialogue.

When I was growing up and in school I learned about civics. I learned a structural abstract sort of ‘about’ the government, but I don't learn how to relate in a democratic way. I was taught in civics class that we have these parts of government, the house, the senate, the president, and the courts. It’s a competition between the parties. I learned about this map of the structure, but I never was taught how to relate effectively in a democracy. I feel sad about that, it seems like a huge loss for the culture. I feel like I lost something.

I am remembering my education in democracy, government and civics when I was young and growing up. My memory of it is learning the different parts of government and the power relationships between them and the power of voting and parties and trying to get things passed, but not education about how do we talk to each other, how do we listen to each other, how do we do democracy by understanding each other and I’m sad that was not part of what was taught.

I feel sadness, I just felt a wave of sadness come up because I feel this loss for the potential of real connection. I see that this basic practice of the empathy circle, and there are so many other practices to add to it.

This is a basic practice of the empathy circle, mutual active listening or mutual listening practice, We could bring into the schools and the government. I see we need to bring this practice in to all these different institutions to institutionalize it. To have one of the requirement, for example, to have politicians do regular empathy circles. Do it in Congress and have the politicians have empathy circles across the aisle.

There is this missing key element in the way that we're taught to participate in democracy. It has to do with listening to each other. It makes me very sad to realize that this important component that's missing.

I’d really like to see this basic practice of empathy circle, which is very sound for democratic functioning to see that introduced into schools, into civic education, into city governments and into the federal government. I’d like to see empathy circle become part of the regular practice of how we work with each other.

I'm really curious how it would work in a philosopher’s conference? What would it be like to bring this practice into philosophers group, where there is often an intellectual competition where ideas compete with each other and people argue with each other and people try to win?

Lou mentioned the word hope. For me too, there's an aspect of hope in the Empathy Circle, in the practice. It gives me hope, and it's a hope based on personal experience. It is from personal experience too. The experience that comes up comes up,

1. with my family. There's been family different conflict, and we started doing these empathy circles to address it. We have six or seven of us in the living room for three or four hours doing the empathy circle. We are talking through issues and some are really difficult. These are issues that generally would get swept under the rug, or family members would hold these resentments or they'd blow up and get pissed off with each other. This practice just slows things down. There's slowly an element of trust that's being developed in the practice. It’s a safe practice. The issues and discussions can be very tough, things can come up but there's an aspect of safety in having a process.

So having had success in the past, gives me hope that we can do it again for the future.. It’s not just an abstract intellectual or wishful hope. it's actually grounded in lots of experience of you doing circles in lots of different contexts. The family context is often the most difficult place be honest and to really listen to each other.

There's plenty of other experiences where the skills of listening works really well in different contexts. Another example, recently I set up the empathy tent at a church and we had some church members come by.

A mother and her son came by, and she'd been having a feeling of disconnection with her teenage son. He had been more withdrawn and that concerned the mother. She mentioned they had a good connection with him when he was younger. However, now they were drifting apart and it was painful to her. She came came by and the two of them sat down.

more to come.