Center for Building a Culture of Empathy

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Join the International Conference on: How Might We Build a Culture of Empathy and Compassion?

 

How To Host an Empathy Circle

practicing an empathic way of being 
Short link: http://j.mp/HowToEmpathy

 PDF Version: Empathy Circle: How-To Do Empathic Listening
 You can print out the 1 page PDF page and hand it out to anyone to encourage them to start or participate in an empathy circle.
Short link: http://j.mp/1GHmIyr

 

What is an Empathy Circle?

 

 

An Empathy Circle is a method for practicing and experiencing empathy in a small group setting. A Circle is a sort of empathy building 'platform' on which various activities and processes can be added. For example, Empathy Circles have been used to host book club discussions, conflict management discussions, for personal support and discussions centered around social tragedies, such as school shootings.  Regardless of the event that occasioned the Circle, the goal is for all present to practice empathizing, to the best of their ability, with themselves and with their fellow circle members. This entails being present with one another in a non-judgmental, authentic, open, and receptive way.

 


Why Participate in an Empathy Circle?

 

An Empathy Circle process is one of the most accessible and effective ways to practice empathy and, thus, to exercise and grow our empathy muscles. Physical muscles need to have ongoing and regular exercise to keep them toned and fit. The same is true with our empathy muscle system. It needs regular practice, practice, practice, and exercise to be kept in shape and be brought into peak fitness. Just like reading a book about exercise is not enough to keep our bodies fit, reading a book or article about empathy is not enough to strengthen the practice. We need real exercise; we need to stretch, flex, move, and work those muscles. When we have strengthened our empathy muscle system through participation in Empathy Circles, we can move on to more nuanced and sophisticated exercises and grow our capacities even further.

 

 

Music also offers a useful metaphor.  Participating in an Empathy Circle is like practicing musical scales when one begins learning to play an instrument. The Circle provides the basic scales of empathy that we can practice with others. Eventually, we can play beautiful music or even a symphony together.
 

 

How Do We Do an Empathy Circle?

These are the basic instructions for holding an empathy circle.

 

Group Size. The group should have 3 to 5 participants (4 is ideal). If there are more people, divide the larger group into smaller groups of no more than 5 in a circle.

 

Roles. Participants take the roles of Speaker, Active Listener, or Silent Listener at different times during the Circle. The process begins with the first Speaker. This Speaker selects the person to whom who they will speak (the Active Listener), and then speaks about whatever comes up for them. The Active Listener reflects back what they are hearing until the Speaker feels heard to their satisfaction. Then it is the Active Listener's turn to become the Speaker and to select to whom they will speak. That new Active Listener will then reflect back what they are hearing, using the same process. Dialogue continues in this back and forth fashion for the time allotted. Meanwhile, those in the group who are not in Speaker or Active Listener roles at any given moment (who we call Silent Listeners) are also paying close attention to the interaction.

 

 

Detailed Instructions by Role          

 

Speaker

  • You can choose to speak to anyone in the group.

  • The intention is for you to feel heard to your satisfaction by the person to whom you are speaking.

  •  You have the full attention of the circle.

  • Pause often to give the Listener a chance to reflect back what they heard you say.

  • Remember that you are guiding the Listener to hear you to your satisfaction. You are 'teaching' them how to listen and empathize with you the way you want to be heard.

  • When you are finished speaking, you can say something like, "I feel fully heard" to indicate that you are finished and it's the Listener's turn to speak.
     

Active Listener

  • You want to just accompany and follow the Speaker where they want to go, not steer or guide them. You are accompanying them on their inner journey.

  •  Check your understanding of what the Speaker is saying. You want to check if you are hearing and understanding the Speaker correctly. You can do this by reflecting back, summarizing, paraphrasing, conveying the meaning you get, or using a combination of these options.

  • Keep your attention on the Speaker's meaning rather than your own interpretations. Refrain from asking questions, judging, analyzing, detaching, diagnosing, advising or sympathizing. 

  •  Relax. There is no right and wrong way. You are not being judged. Do the best you can. You are simply working to make the Speaker feel heard to their satisfaction.

  •  If the Speaker does not feel heard to their satisfaction, they can repeat what they said, and you can try again until the Speaker feels heard the way they want.

  • When it's your turn to speak, you can say whatever you want in any way that you want.

 

Silent Listeners

  • You can listen and be present with the empathic listening between the Speaker and Active Listener. You will soon have a turn to actively listen and speak.

  •  Sometimes it's handy to take notes about ideas that come up for you or something that someone else has said for documenting and "harvesting" the discussion.

 

What Have Participants Said About Empathy Circles?

 

In the empathy circle. I liked...

... the opportunity to listen, share, be heard and be seen.
 

... being heard, and getting some practice in being heard!
 

... practicing empathy to get better at listening.
 

... the structure of this practice allowed and facilitated connection and understanding with my partners.
 

... that I felt fully heard about my experiences and anxieties. I enjoyed hearing about other people's life experiences and seeing how productive the practice of active listening and feedback encourages authentic communication and healing.
 

... being able to practice empathy, especially reflective listening.
 

... the fact that the listener doesn't give answers to the thoughts of the speaker, only listens and reflects, letting the speaker genuinely express his/her feelings fluidly and according to his feelings not being guided by the listener.
 

... that I felt more grounded after being able to share, hearing others speak and be heard, reflecting others.

 

What Else Can I Do To Nurture an Empathic Way of Being?

 

Try the Empathy Circle process with your families, friends, community, work colleagues, and more. Once you are comfortable with this basic process, you can start adding more layers on the Empathy Circles by using other empathy community building activities, such as:

 

What Other Resources about Empathy Circles are Available?

See Video Samples of Online Empathy Circles      

 

 

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