I've been exploring the question of, How can we build a culture of empathy? A while back, 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 individually reconnect internally, reconnect with others and reconnect with the community at large. Dominic told me restorative circles are like a series of empathy hot tubs. This is the first part of my interview with him where I asked him about the nature of empathy.
Edwin Rutsch by Edwin Rutsch
Dominic Barter: One of the things I experience when empathy is present, is that the blocks to action, which does not exclude are removed. So one of the ways that I can identify that empathy is present, is that whatever is impeding action is gone, and that the quality that that action has is that it tends to include, it connects, it brings pieces together, it resolve what appears to be knotted and bond.
And I can remember a situation in a practice group where somewhere came, and they said, "You know I'm so pissed off with my boyfriend. I came in last night, and I've been working all day, and he sat on the sofa watching TV, switching channels. And there's this huge pile of washing up." And she had her pain, that she felt around that heard, and she felt much better. And it was great. And she went home, and everything for her seemed in her experience of that, very different.
And next week we gathered again in a practice group, and she said "I can't believe it. I'm so upset. I came home, and my boyfriend sat on the sofa, and you know, he's smoking and watching television, and there's this huge pile of washing up."
And she gets her pain heard again, and the next week I'm thinking "I'm not sure what's going to happen", and sure enough, there she is saying, you know, the same thing happened again. So listening to someone's pain, which is a very supportive regenerative experience for many of us, is a very key element, but for me, it is not the piece that I'm looking for. It is not something that removes the blocks to action yet, if it doesn't translate into a new relationship between these two people, an initiative taking back the power to actually express myself and create change. That's what I like to reserve the word empathy for.
So I can listen like a friend to someone else, and that can be very valuable, but there's something really unique about empathy, that it clears the things that are blocking action, and that it connects both inside and to other people in a way that is transformative.
But I like the word empathy. It suggests to me more than an understanding of what has happened to someone else, but almost like a lending of my sense of them to them, that helps them reconnect with themselves in a deeper way.
And when we really reconnect internally, we discover that we have a wealth of options, and the joy of life is the engagement in what is happening around us, to celebrate and support those things that are aligned with our values, and to engage with those things that aren't, and invite them to transform.
So that's what I'm looking for, that inner connection that leads to action. The inner connection is within myself, and it is with that that I'm able to engage with someone else in a way that doesn't involve me being submissive to them or attempting to dominate them. So that's why I say it clears the blocks to action which is inclusive.
So I'd describe empathy as one of the conditions that enables me to connect internally, and therefore, to act in a way that doesn't create separation and distance, but brings people together and creates power, basically, through partnership, through the desire to co create the conditions that we want to live in.
I think when the word was unusual - you know, it's still very recent - and I like speaking about it. So in communities where that word is not common, I very much like being able to identify the specific dynamic that the restorative circles are creating the conditions for, and naming it, so that people can start thinking about it more consciously.
But in other communities where the word is used a lot, and sometimes used to describe for me something that doesn't have the same power as that which I am interested in supporting, then I tend not to use it. Because when people hear it, they think "Oh, I already know what that is". That's why you verbalize feelings and needs, for the other person. And that might be a very powerful inner guide for me as I lend my presence to someone else as a support for them to reconnect internally with themselves.
But I don't see that or anything else as being a recipe for empathy. I don't want to reduce empathy to any particular way of speaking or any particular trick or procedure that I'm going to use with other people.
Because it's fundamentally to do with me being fully present with you in such a way that that quality of presence becomes almost contagious, and your organism is supported in you reconnecting inside, and therefore, able, willing and engaged to take the next step.
EDWIN: So you didn't bring it up here (at this training in the Bay Area), because I'm just speculating, because a lot of people have Nonviolent Communication (NVC) experience, and they have a certain definition of empathy, and you thought it would confuse the discussion?