“Be careful not to dehumanize people you disagree with.
In our self-righteousness, we can easily become the very things we dislike in others.”
Twenty-ish years ago, I lost my cool in a heated argument with a boyfriend. To be fair, as a budding activist, I generally didn’t spend much time being mellow, but one quarrel in particular stands out. I was in my mid-twenties, had been dating the guy for several years and was a volunteer on a 24-hour crisis line with the Montreal Sexual Assault Center. Once a week, anonymous calls would get re-directed to my land-line for a six-hour shift and I would engage in active listening with survivors of sexual assault.
The crux of our argument was this: He believed no woman deserves to be raped, but women should be smart about what they wear and where they walk or go for a run, especially at night. I believed (and still do) no woman deserves to be raped. Full stop. I had zero tolerance for any position to the contrary. Worse, I had contempt for anyone who disagreed. Needless to say, after our nasty fight, the evening went bust and left toxic residue in its wake.
This week, I will complete training to become a facilitator of Empathy Circles and I wonder how things might have gone differently with my ex-boyfriend if I had been equipped to have an empathic dialogue with him. I’m quite certain my position would not have changed, but I probably would have heard his opinion with a different set of ears and would not have demonized him in the process.
In an increasingly polarized world – one in which we’re fed a daily diet of views that match and reinforce our own – we need ways to build bridges of understanding. I’m not suggesting anyone tolerate egregious ideas or behaviour, but I do believe there’s value in listening to alternative perspectives without letting triggers get the best of us – as legitimate as the feelings engendered by those triggers may be.
In a recent episode of my Youtube series, Ron McLelland (a pastor and spiritual director) shared what it means to “walk with the other” and love one’s enemies within the context of America’s racial divide. It was a profound reminder that empathy is a gateway to understanding and reconciliation. The alternative, of course, is division into camps – be it about politics, COVID, divesting from oil or attachment parenting – whereby the other side is vilified.
Eddie Barnes, a journalist-turned-political campaigner who was involved in the campaigns against Scottish independence and Brexit, recently penned an article called Building Back Better. He writes, “instead of lapsing into a contempt-driven war where the aim is to destroy the identity of the other, the search for empathy means we gain a better understanding of why we disagree and, in so doing, are able to focus on the roots and causes of our differences.” Barnes believes the best way to do this is by “listening hard to what other people are saying and thinking.”
In a nutshell, that describes precisely what happens in an Empathy Circle. Let me explain how the practice works: Imagine 4-6 people seated in a circle (or on a zoom call) and I’m the facilitator. I welcome everyone to the circle and explain that we’ll be spending 90 minutes together practicing deep listening and nurturing an empathic way of being. Heaven knows we all need more of that in the world today!
Next, I choose a topic and two people step into the role of speaker and listener, respectively. The speaker has 5 minutes to say whatever they’d like (in response to the prompt topic or not) and the listener reflects back what they hear. To make the process easier on the listener, the speaker usually offers 1-2 thoughts at a time (in other words, batches of ideas). The listener’s job is to then reflect back the spirit of what they heard – not quote anything back verbatim or add additional commentary (in agreement, disagreement or otherwise).
This pattern of speak-and-reflect repeats itself for 5 minutes (flagged by the facilitator). The listener then becomes the speaker and invites someone else from the circle to listen. Typically, it takes 30 minutes for everyone in the circle to listen and speak at least once.
What follows next is magic.
As circle members get more comfortable in different roles, the quality of the “conversation” shifts. Listeners are more present to what is being expressed and lose the need to react. (Aren’t we all guilty of mentally preparing a response as we supposedly listen to others?) Meanwhile, speakers share less what’s on their mind and more what’s in their heart. Somehow, in the safe and brave space of an Empathy Circle, the content naturally deepens. Speakers also enjoy the gift of being heard without interruption or judgment. Of course, that’s the opposite of how I “listened” to my ex-boyfriend express himself in our big row.
Stay tuned for Part II of Empathy’s Role in Reconciliation. In the meantime, please email firstname.lastname@example.org if you’re interested in participating in an Empathy Circle with me. It’s a 90 minute practice that brings into sharp focus how learning to become a better listener can help heal relationships – and possibly the world. It’s certainly a useful practice heading into the holiday season!
Interested in becoming an Empathy Circle facilitator? Check this out. Want more information about participating in an empathy circle? Check this out. Big kudos to Edwin Rutsch (Founding Director of the Center for Building a Culture of Empathy) for championing this effort.
PS Join the Purposeful Empathy community. Together, let’s spread more empathy in the world.
For more than a decade, I have been singularly focused on leveraging empathy for personal and social transformation. I teach Leadership and Social Entrepreneurship & Innovation at McGill University and co-founder of PVM-Studio, a global advisory firm that supports purpose-driven people and organizations. Learn more about my work here.