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Building a Culture of Empathy: Dominic Barter on Empathy as Super Food

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How do we go about Building a Culture of Empathy? I interviewed Dominic Barter, who facilitates Restorative Circles in some of the toughest drug and gang ridden favelas (shantytowns) in Brazil. He has created a process based on Nonviolent Communication and Restorative Justice that brings conflicted parties together to reconnect internally, with others and with the community at large. He told me restorative circles are like a series of empathy hot tubs. This is part of my interview with him where I asked him for a metaphor of empathy.

Video: Dominic Barter - Empathy as Super Food Metaphor

I like the word "Presence." The first three letters P-R-E (the suffix) means "that which comes before" and S-E-N (the root) means "to be." [from Latin]

So Presence is that what we are before anything else...before we do anything, before have a sense of our own identity, before we have any intention or make any movement...

Presence is not something that I need to train. It is not a skill. I don't accumulate Presence or the ability to be present. And yet it is in some way a practice, or rather, it is a practice not to interfere with Presence and allow it to "be" in a way that is fuller and fuller and more and more visible to someone else.

So my understanding is that when I connect empathically to someone else what I am doing is I'm turning up the volume on my Presence in such a way that it includes them, and I'm inviting them to experience me as being fully present with them.

I may be judging them. I probably am in my case, judging them, making some kind of diagnosis, believing they should change in some way, agreeing with them or disagreeing with them.

Whether I'm doing that or not doesn't seem to make an effect on the quality of Presence. What makes an effect is where do I focus my attention?

Do I focus my attention on that constant stream of judgment that I have in my head? Or do I focus my attention on the place in which they and I connect--our common humanity that which we share. When I focus my attention there things begin to shift, or at least the invitation for them to shift is clearly on the table.

So that's my experience of empathy while I'm experiencing it as alive and dynamic happening between us, and the way I connect to the meaning in that is through remembering what the word Presence is pointing to...

And a metaphor for empathy? If it was a type of animal for example.

I heard you say animal, but what I saw was a plant, so I'll answer in that sense. When I'm taking care [of my plants] then what I'm interested in is what supports them to empathy is like this superfood.

It's not exactly sunshine, it's not exactly water, it's not exactly the soil. It's something else which imbues all of these and creates conditions for growth. I'm wanting it to be silently, invisibly, or visibly present.

Not simply in moments in which someone is experiencing pain and would really like to be heard...

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Founder of the Center for Building a Culture of Empathy. The Culture of Empathy website is a growing portal for resources and information about the values of empathy and compassion. It contains articles, conferences, (more...)

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