Empathy Circles as Imaginal Cells for a Regenerative and Co-creative Future

In the last few years, I’ve been exploring the use of Empathy Circles with some of my organizational clients, with facilitator learning groups, and in communication workshops. I’ve been finding that it is a great introduction and warm-up for Dynamic Facilitation, one of my core practices, as it offers everyone in the room the opportunity to engage in offering listening reflections to one another.

At the same time, I’m totally excited to see that Edwin Rutsch, the creator of Empathy Circles, has been bringing his work into the arena healing political divides. My experience is that this simple-yet-powerful form is actually quite revolutionary, in the best sense of the word, and so I want to delve a bit into what I see as the underlying dynamics. But first, a brief description, followed by a distinction and clarification…

Screen Shot 2019-03-10 at 2.40.25 PM Photo: Empathy Tent staff teach students at UC Berkeley the Empathy Circle Process.

Experiencing Inter-being

From one perspective, the small-group format of Empathy Circles can be seen as an effective way for individuals to learn and practice what has been known in the past as “active listening skills”. Yet Empathy Circles are much more than a training tool; they are also a powerful way to connect experientially with the deeper reality of our inter-being. As we do so, we begin to shed some of  the dysfunctional cultural conditioning that keeps us feeling isolated and alienated from one another; and, we begin to transform ingrained communication patterns of vying with one another for attention, that are the understandable outcome of a culture of scarcity and competition.

In Empathy Circles, we practice and hone our deep listening skills within small groups of 3 to 5 people. Initially, I invite participants to focus on positive topics, such as celebrating a meaningful  experience. Participants take turns being in the role of speaker, listener, and witness. The intention of these Circles is to explore how we can support others in feeling heard.  Thus, the role of the listener is to offer the speaker a verbal response that communicates their understanding of the speaker’s message.

Some basic distinctions

Some readers may be familiar with Empathy Circles in an NVC context. NVC Empathy Circles are a super valuable form, especially for people who are committed to learning NVC. Yet what Edwin Rutsch has created is a more basic format that hearkens back to Carl Rogers’ work; Rogers was Marshall Rosenberg’s original teacher. Thus, “Rutschian” Empathy Circles are different than, yet related to, NVC Empathy Circles. (For the rest of this article, I will refer to them simply as ER Empathy Circles.)

In NVC Empathy Circles, we are asked to reflect back our best guess with regard to feelings and needs, “are you feeling x because you are needing y?” In contrast, in ER Empathy Circles the instructions are more basic:  we are simply reflecting back our understanding of what another person has said, as a way to check back in with them. The fundamental intention is to help the other person feel heard.

As Edwin Rutsch often says, the Empathy Circle format he has created can be seen as a “gateway or first step practice; the ‘next steps’ of this foundational practice could be counseling, mediation, NVC practices, Focusing, Human-Centered Design, Dynamic Facilitation, etc.” In other words, Edwin sees his Empathy Circle format as “a sort of empathy first step or boot camp.”

As we move into more advanced practices, a great deal could be written about the possible nuances involved in offering a listening reflection. This is especially important when we are working as a therapist, a group facilitator, or a crisis team de-escalator. (Here’s one article with some additional references.) Yet when working with ER Empathy Circles, I find that it’s actually not necessary nor even helpful to introduce those nuances, especially at first. The intention is to help another feel heard; and offering the caution to not add in one’s own thoughts and responses, along with modeling the process, is usually sufficient.

Connecting with our “Social Engagement System”

While participants in ER Empathy Circles are developing skills, they are also engaging in a strong community-building experience. Participants repeatedly report how strong and meaningful it is, to experience feeling deeply heard in a small group.

While the topics that we introduce initially when working with ER Empathy Circles in our workshops and client engagements are not particularly challenging ones, the skills participants are developing can eventually be utilized for interrupting patterns of escalating interpersonal conflict. In contrast, in Edwin’s current work, he is “diving right in” into topics of political polarization. Still, as I see it, the underlying basic principle is similar; as each participant has the opportunity to feel heard, they are able to reconnect with their biological “social engagement system” as described in Stephen Porges’ Polyvagal Theory; this allows an individual and collective shift into a more collaborative problem-solving mode.

For a very accessible introduction to Porges’ work, I recommend Deb Dana’s The Polyvagal Theory in Therapy: Engaging the Rhythm of Regulation. And, to understand more fully the nature of what is taking place in ER Empathy Circles, it also helps to take a deeper look at the role of empathy in human evolution, both our biological evolution as well as our cultural evolution….

Empathy as an inherent capacity

Empathy can be seen as an inherent capacity in human beings, one manifestation of which is the mirroring games that mothers and babies often play. As social mammals, we have evolved the ability to regulate ourselves emotionally through our interpersonal connections with one another.

Anthropologists believe that humans lived as hunters and gatherers for hundreds of thousands of years; during this time, we lived in small, egalitarian groupings where collaborative decision-making was the norm. In contrast, today we live in a culture organized to create widespread material scarcity alongside vast accumulations of private wealth. This tendency has been growing for the last ten to twenty thousand years, ever since the development of so-called “civilization”.

In our hierarchical and scarcity-based cultures, competition has become a way of life, and the need to compete for material goods overflows into a tendency to compete for interhuman attention. Thus, we often find ourselves in social situations where everyone is speaking yet no one is feeling heard. Those who “command attention” from others are the ones at the top of the pyramid; listening tends to be associated with being in a subservient position. All of these factors contribute to highly competitive conversational patterns, and the low-level social anxiety that pervades far too many social situations.

Yet our lived experience in ER Empathy Circles seems to suggest that despite our cultural conditioning, it is possible for us to reconnect with our ancient  roots; we can derive life-giving nourishment (along with a strong dose of oxytocin) from participating in egalitarian small-group interactions. From the perspective of epigenetics, we can see how the knowledge gained through hundreds of thousands of years of sitting in circle with one another, can still be encoded in our cellular memory. This may account for the familiarity that many of us experience when participating in various kinds of circle processes.

This is the sort of  “home-coming”  that takes place as we experience what physiological psychology researcher Barbara Frederickson calls “positivity resonance”. It is not that the content shared within Empathy Circles (or other circles) is only “positive” material; it may in fact sometimes be sad or challenging. Rather, the “positivity” is in the moments of human connection that occur within a communicatively inclusive and non-competitive environment, where we can each feel deeply seen and heard.

Empathy Circles as a Way of Empowering Personal and Societal Transformation

In his book Of Water and Spirit (1995), Malidoma Somé writes about how many people in the West feel a longing to undergo some sort of tribal initiation ritual. Yet he maintains that most of us have already experienced initiation; any major life event, any significant occurrence that we have lived through — be it divorce, job loss, major illness – is actually an initiation. The one thing missing in the West is the opportunity to have this initiation, along with the significant transition that it has catalyzed, celebrated by one’s peers.

What we lack is the invitation to come out, stand in the center of our village, and proclaim, ‘I used to be known as ‘Mary’ – now I am ‘Mary-Whole-Heart’, the one who has lived through this painful event, and survived.’ Among their many applications, Empathy Circles can serve as a simple yet effective format where we can witness one another and celebrate the transitions and significant life events that we have each experienced.

Yet in addition to navigating our personal transitions, there are also huge transitions that we need to make as a society. For example, the intense hurricanes that we have been experiencing in the U.S. could  become significant turning points for the life course of our civilization — IF we decided as a society to transition from fossil fuel dependence to sustainable alternatives. Yet oil companies have actively spread disinformation about the challenges their products pose to our global well-being, just as the tobacco companies did before them. Meanwhile, our news media promote fear and hopelessness, as collaborative efforts toward collective well-being are not often considered sales-generating “news”. Thus, it is understandable that so many of us resort to the coping mechanisms of denial and passivity in regard to the enormous challenge that we are facing as a country and as a species.

Our society is also experiencing another transition, one involving an impending shift in roles and status for members in the majority group, as the demographics of the U.S. continue to change over the next several decades. Some see our current political situation as a backlash against this upcoming transition. Yet the structure of our society encourages us to be primarily concerned with our own individual survival / well-being, rather than helping us see how our personal well-being is linked with the well-being of the larger whole.

The social issues we are facing are of such import, that we would do well to activate our “collective nervous system” in small, supportive affinity groups, in order to digest the distressing challenges we are facing, remain grounded, and act in constructive ways. Thus, I am inspired to find ways to share ER Empathy Circles with those who are working toward social change. And I am encouraged to see signs of other empathy-based and dialogical approaches beginning to sprout up in the social change realm.

Some noteworthy projects along these lines include The People’s Supper, a collaboration whose purpose is to “building community through better conversations”. Their website includes many excellent resources, including “Collective Care in the Face of Violent Trauma: A guidebook for gathering”. Another set of valuable resources can be found on the website of the White Ally Toolkit project, whose purpose is to teach listening, connection, and narrative skills as a way for people to engage in constructive conversations on racial issues with their families, friends, neighbors, and co-workers.

I see both of these, along with ER Empathy Circles, as excellent examples of the role that empathy and dialogue can play with regard to supporting our own personal growth and understanding, and our ability to connect with diverse others — and thus support us through the larger transitions and turning points we need to be making as a society.

What do you think about all this? Would love to hear from you, in the comments section below…


10 thoughts on “Empathy Circles as Imaginal Cells for a Regenerative and Co-creative Future

  1. I feel very supported by this article. I ran an EC circle with my local Extinction Rebellion group recently, which went well. I am grateful for the distinction between this form of EC, and NVC, ( which I have been familiar with for some time).
    I am also very aware of active listening, but not in a group session, and of sharing in a group where there is no comment, just witnesses. What I love about this form is that it combines the values of hearing oneself through being reflected back but another, along with the huge value of witnesses, within a group, which emphasizes the ‘we’ over the “me’ or rather the “me” as”we”, which is paramount at this crucial time of potential fragmentation and division, with all the violence this can engender.
    Thank you again for expressing this so comprehensively.

    • thank you so much for your comments, Fran! Yes, so powerful to do active listening, in a group context… and the powerful sense of “we” that can be created!

  2. I feel grateful for this. When I get scared, and hear blame, I resist participating in Empathy Circles, even when I was invited on Facebook during racial conflict. I now have trouble inspiring my own spiritual community to adopt Empathy Circles. I appreciate learning more about ER Empathy Circles and notice I have a lot more to learn and a lot on my plate and unsure what’s the best way to learn Empathy Circles and become congruent with the process as someone with complex PTSD?

    • Hi Shreehari… one way to learn empathy circle, is with a few trusted friends. This is a fairly simple process, and there are instructions on Edwin Rutsch’s website. Wishing you much gentleness as you take your time creating a nurturing space to explore this practice.

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  4. Pingback: What is an Empathy Circle? – Empathy Circles

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