Empathy Circles for Everyone

It's no secret that I spend a lot of time thinking about, practicing, and spreading empathy. Jeremy Rifkin's The Empathic Civilization anchored my praxis with the thesis: Preserving humanity and the biosphere require empathy. According to Rifkin, this isn't a soft skill some people embody more than others, but rather a necessary intervention for humanity to get off a collision course. From my end, I endeavor to make it a bigger part of education, the place where we receive most instruction and participate in learning. For Edwin Rutsch, his reach is a lot wider, more global, and covering people of greater age and geographical range. It is an honor to collaborate with Edwin, and support his work.

Edwin is influenced by Carl Rogers, the father of the person-centered approach to therapy. Edwin shared this quote with me about how empathy arises when one has a companion with them on a journey, which inspires me to cultivate even deeper empathy practices:

Empathy is saying to someone:
"I'm trying to be a companion to you in your search and your exploration. I want to know, am I with you? Is this the way it seems to you? Is this the thing you're trying to express? Is this the meaning it has for you?"

So in a sense I'm saying, "I'm walking with you step by step, and I want to make sure I am with you. Am I with you? So that's a little bit of my understanding about empathy."
~ Carl Rogers

Edwin believes empathy is needed as a form of "ongoing support for flourishing through life." He hopes to one day see every family having empathy circles to cultivate more ease and frequency of open and honest communication. In a recent discussion, Edwin mentioned that he'd like to see schools, prisons, law enforcement, and communities using empathy circles. To achieve these honorable goals, Edwin is the director of Center for Building a Culture of Empathy, a global network of over 20,000 people, where he interviews others promoting empathy, archives the videos, and offers human centered design workshops on cultivating meaningful approaches to spreading a culture of empathy. The center is a portal for resources and information about the values of empathy and compassion. Most critically, Edwin facilitates empathy circles as frequently as he can, which is in my opinion, where the crux of his work lies. Edwin practices empathy with others, in an effort to promote more of it.

As I explored how K12 educators promote empathy, I connected with those in the Design Thinking field. The team at #DTK12chat has been instrumental in my exploration, and it led to me learning a lot about Design Thinking. Appreciating the multi-disciplinary approach to human centered problems, it was included as a main component of the program piloted by The Connect Group, where students co-founded and co-designed a school to meet their needs, and those of their peers in the community. Collaborating with students to solve a major social problem has been the highlight of this experience; having the Design Thinking framework enabled supportive adults to tune into student experiences, and support their creativity while learning loads about education. Through all these efforts to learn and practice empathy and Design Thinking, I had never considered nor included the empathy circle as a tool.

When Edwin invited me to join a mini design workshop on redesigning the empathy circle to be even more effective, I was all in! Moreover, I brought one of my student collaborators to the party! On August 6th, 2015, Edwin convened an amazing group, which included Ed Hooks, author and acting teacher, and Mark Baer Esq, family law attorney and mediator. Along with myself, and Chance, our 15-year old student collaborator, we were a very diverse yet empathic group. Ed teaches animators and actors how to use empathy in their craft, while Mark was named "Most Compassionate Mediator," and is known for taking the time to ask questions, listen, and understand the needs of his clients. This was an empathic group par excellence!

With Edwin's leadership, the 3-hour workshop went by quickly with many exchanges and learning for all. One of the components that I took away was how important it is to keep practicing empathy, even when one already feels grounded in empathy. Some K12 educators that I respect say empathy is a way of being, that if you go into an interaction oriented with empathy, boom! empathy is present. I believe empathy is like a muscle that benefits from repetitive practice. The more it is flexed, the stronger and more adept one becomes in the practice. Edwin's empathy circle drove this home for me, in a big way! See, empathy circles have one aim, listen and reflect back until the speaker feels fully heard and understood. This objective can be challenging, even for very empathically minded people. Active listening can feel robotic and repetitive to some people practicing active listening, however it is the channel for connection with the person speaking. When we listen actively, with the aim of empathizing, there is no sharing outside the speaker's thoughts. The only statement that an active listener makes is a clarifying statement to see if s/he has accurately received the message the speaker intended. In this way, active empathic listening is framed by the Carl Rogers quote above as it is one way of checking with the speaker to see: "Am I with you?"

When I teach art appreciation to students, I implore them to see the canvas as they wish, and to share how they understand it. I know that art is transformed every single time it is viewed, and that this is also true for listening to people and reading the written word. Art, speech, and written language are always transformed by the values, judgments, biases, and experiences of the receiver/viewer. To ensure I get what speakers truly mean, and not just that which resonates with my scope of perception, I do a lot of checking and repeating. It can feel cumbersome at first, however those who truly want to be seen and heard receive it as a healing balm.

In sum, it was an amazingly empowering experience to connect with Edwin in an empathy circle with Mark, Ed, and Chance. We cultivated and strengthened our own empathy muscles, and in so doing hopefully promote it in the culture, along with Edwin. This experience reminded me of Darwin's thoughts on "the social instinct": "As soon as this virtue is honored and practiced by some few of us it spreads through instruction and example to the young and eventually becomes incorporated in public opinion" So immensely grateful to Edwin, for initiating the empathy circle for Mark, Ed, Chance, and I, and also for honoring and practicing the virtue of empathy. I trust it is already spreading to the young, and being incorporated in public opinion just seeing the incredibly diverse yet empathic group that came together on August 6th, 2015. In the words of Roman Krznaric, Welcome to Empathy Revolution!