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Dominic Barter on Empathy & Restorative Circles (Part 2)

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This is part 2 of my interview with Dominic Barter, the founder of the 'Restorative Circles' process, on his insights into the nature and experience of empathy.

Edwin Rutsch
Edwin Rutsch
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EDWIN: If you scan back over your life, are there moments when you learned about empathy, like saying, "Oh, I just learned this lesson about the nature of empathy", and can you recount that experience?

DOMINIC: The first time I ever met someone who had studied nonviolent communication, and I was talking to her about a relationship struggle that I was involved in, and she heard me in a way that was just so different. I had never seen anyone verbally respond to me in the way that she was doing it.

And it was extraordinary. And what was extraordinary was that I was brought back, deeper, further into myself, and used to saying what I say. And as I say it, it leaves me, and then it is in the other person, and then the other person will respond somewhere, and the focus of attention is there.

But something in the way she heard me and accompanied me brought me deeper into myself, and at the end of the few minutes in which I was expressing myself and heard in that way, I had a very, very clear specific sense of what I wanted to do next. And the thing I wanted to do next was something that I wanted to do because I believed it would increase the sense of connection between me and the other person with whom I was confused at that moment. So that was a very clear transformative experience for me.

EDWIN: In terms of exploring the theme, the topic of empathy, how would you go about exploring that theme. What would be your approach in getting deeper insight into the experience.

DOMINIC: I'd like to invite people to participate in a very simple exercise where they share with each other something that is important to them that has happened recently. And as they share, I ask the person who is listening, simply to listen. And at the end, I ask them how it feels.
 And I don't think I've ever done that and not heard a large number of people saying "It feels really good to be heard". And I take that as a clue, and I follow that deeper: "What is it that is so good about being heard?"

"Well, I'm seeing. I become visible. I'm being understood". And people give out language which I think everything already knows. And my understanding is that they are describing a sense of supported in being myself, in being at peace with reality as I'm experiencing it from this viewpoint.

And that is profoundly empowering. And once we are empowered, we transform, because that's what the most fun to do - we support the things that are working for us, and we engage with the things that aren't.

So I prefer to invite people to experience the quality that we're calling empathy rather than talking about it or illustrating it, or telling stories about it. Because it's a taste for me, a taste that I want to learn to savor in more and more detail, more and more precision, like people who taste wine can identify all these myriad different aspects of the taste behind wine, and layers and layers or taste that emerge over time.

I want to become a connoisseur of that process of being in connection with someone which supports action in that way. And so I'm interested in deepening that for myself, and sharing that with others as best I can.

EDWIN: There's a lot of new science out about the mirror neurons. I'm wondering if you've been following that, and have you made the connection between what you're doing and that science?

DOMINIC: Yeah, I read some fascinating research just last week. People who discovered that playing a recording of a child crying to that same child does not provoke that child to cry. But when that child hears a recording of other children crying, then they do cry.

So the levels in which we are organized in such a way as to be aware of our interconnectedness, I think, are very, very deep, and we are only beginning to get an understanding of how that is an essential element of our sociobiology.

So I think it's absolutely fascinating. I want to keep following the experiences that these sciences are investigating, and keep learning about it, and keep being stimulated by the questions that this is brining up. And make the connection between what the scientists are discovering and the kind of things that Obama has been saying - which places empathy as being a key aspect of our ability to live together in community and relate to each other.

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Founder of the Center for Building a Culture of Empathy. http://cultureofempathy.com 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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