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 topracticeempathizing, 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
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 to Take Part in a Basic Empathy Circle?
These are the basic instructions for holding an
Group Size. The group should have
2 to 6
participants (4 is ideal). If there are more people, divide the larger
group into smaller groups of no more than 6 in a circle. The small group
size is so participants have a lot of time to speak and actively listen.
Roles: Speaker, Active Listener, or
Participants take the roles of Speaker,
Active Listener, or Silent Listener at different times during the
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
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.
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.
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
... being heard, and getting some practice in being
... 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
... 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: