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Culture of Empathy Builder:  Dominic Barter


Empathy Connects, Transforms and Removes the Blocks to Action!
Dominic Barter and Edwin Rutsch

Dominic Barter plays with dialogue and partnership, focusing primarily in the fields of education, justice, culture and social change. In the mid-90s he collaborated in the development of Restorative Circles, a community-based and -owned practice for dynamic engagement with conflict that grew from conversations with residents in gang-controlled shantytown favelas in Rio de Janeiro.

He adapted the practice for the Brazilian Ministry of Justice's award-winning national projects in Restorative Justice and supports its application in a further 25 countries. In recent years he has supervised the mediation program for the Police Pacification Units in Rio, served as invited professor at the Standing Group for Consensual Methods of Conflict Resolution, at the High Court of Rio, with a focus on school mediation and bullying, and focused on the development of restorative community. Currently Dominic directs the Dialogue Restoration project for the State Education Department of Rio de Janeiro and partners with the Centre for the Study of Public Security and Citizenship at Candido Mendes University.

"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."

La danse -  Henri Matisse (Wikipedia)

"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."

As a long time student and colleague of Dr. Marshall Rosenberg Dominic serves on the Board of Directors for the Center for Nonviolent Communication, shares Nonviolent Communication throughout Brazil and internationally, and supports its learning in project-based, community contexts. He has been active in the street movements and occupations in Rio in recent years. He’s the very happy dad of an amazing 14 year old.
You can find out more about Restorative Circles at

Sub Conference: Justice


Dominic Barter on Empathy and Restorative Circles: Interviewed by Edwin Rutsch  


Interviews from the Dominic Barter - Restorative Circles Workshop
Oakland CA. 2009-11-01
(Thanks to Mike Epstein for transcription)

Dominic Barter on Empathy (1 of 3)


 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 reconnect internally, with others and with the community at large.

Dominic told me restorative circles are like a series of empathy hot tubs. This is first part of my interview with him where I asked him about the nature of empathy.

One of the things I experience
when empathy is present,
is that the blocks  to action,
which does not exclude,
 are removed.

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 bound.

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.

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, because I'm just speculating, because a lot of people have Nonviolent Communication (NVC) experience, and they have a certain definition of it, and you thought it would confuse the discussion?

DOMINIC: Well, my understanding of NVC and my understanding of what I am doing in restorative circles - the quality of empathy is exactly the same. But as NVC becomes more well-known, and lots of us have - because all of us in the end have a partial understanding of it - then I've seen a lot of examples of people doing something that they call empathy which in my experience doesn't increase the degree of self-connection for the person who's receiving that presence. And that's the quality that I'm really interested in.

So I don't mind if we don't call it empathy, but for now I use the word empathy to describe that quality.


Dominic Barter on Empathy (2 of 3)


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”.

"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."

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.

I want to become a connoisseur of
that process of being in connection
with someone which supports
action in that way.

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.

From what I understand, he and other people are saying, is that empathy is almost a precondition for citizenship – the ability to recognize what I want, articulate it, and negotiate with other people to get it in such a way that works for them.

The ability to listen to other people expressing what it is that they want, despite the way in which they express it in action or in words, however tragic, however violent the forms that they use. And then to support them to articulate it, and then to negotiate with them in a way that leads them to have those needs met. For society to be organized in a way that is in line with their values.

This ability to listen empathically to myself and be able to share it with you, and listen empathically to you, especially when you appear to be totally different than me, and work with you in order to meet your needs.

This that I understand that empathy is about is an essential aspect in our ability to live together. And I see similarly as Obama does, that part of the problem that we are experiencing at the moment is that there is a gap in our ability to do that on a daily personal, interpersonal and social basis. There’s a gap between our ability to do that, and the society in that we want to live in.

It’s not sustainable to live in the way that we’re doing -- unless we recover this ability to see each other as being human first of all.

I’m really interested in the creation of social structures that support the emergence of empathy as the logical next step between people who are living together. So I love the way in which the – for want of a better word – the personal growth culture over the last few decades has investigated the question of empathy, made it its own, and started to develop it as a skill.

I’m really interested in the creation of
social structures that support the
emergence of empathy as the logical
next step between people who
are living together.

But I don’t actually experience it as a skill. The artificiality implicit in skill is something that is at odds with the authenticity that I experience when real empathic change occurs.

So as I interested in building a capacity through personal practice, I’m also really interested in what is a school that supports, that makes it logical for empathy to be the next step that I take in my day-to-day dealings.

  • What does that school look like?
  • What does a family in which empathy is the logical next step when disconnection emerges, or conflict becomes painful?
  • What would a justice system look like where it makes sense that empathy is at the heart of the way in which these people come together to create balance, safety and inclusion for everybody?

So I’d like to invite people to start thinking beyond the intra- and interpersonal, and to start questioning what it looks like to set up social structures which are designed with the intention of creating the conditions for empathy to emerge.

The restorative circle work that I do is my attempt to do that investigation. But it’s just the first few seconds of whatever needs to be done. So I’d like to invite people to join this investigation.



Dominic Barter - Empathy as Super Food Metaphor (3 of 3)

     EDWIN: Do you have a metaphor, something that works for you to describe the experience of empathy in metaphorical terms.

DOMINIC: I don’t think I do I like the word presence. The first three letters of the word presence, the suffix meaning “that which comes before” – pre. And the rout of the word means “to be”. The “sen” from Latin.
So presence is that we are before anything else. Before we do anything, before we have a sense of our own identity. Before we have an intention or make any movement.

So presence is not something that I need to train. It’s not a skill. I don’t accumulate presence or the ability to be present. And yet it is in some way a practice – or rather it is a practice not to interfere with presence, and to allow it to be in a way that is fuller and fuller and more and more visible to someone else.

So my understanding is that when I connect empathically to someone else, what I’m doing is I’m turning up the volume on my presence in such a way that it includes them. And I’m inviting them to experience me as being fully present with them.

I may be judging them – I probably am, in my case, judging them, making some kind of diagnosis, believing that they should change in some way, agreeing with them, or disagreeing with them.

Whether I am doing that or not doesn’t seem to make an affect on the quality of presence. What makes an effect is where do I focus my attention. Do I focus my attention on that constant stream of judgment that I have in my head, or do I focus my attention on the place in which they and I connect – our common humanity, that which we share.

When I focus my attention there, things begin to shift, or at least the invitation for them to shift is clearly on the table.

So that’s my experience of empathy while I am experiencing it as something alive and dynamic happening between us. And the way that I connect to the meaning in that is through remembering what the word presence is pointing to.

EDWIN: It’s not quite a metaphor in terms of turning it into – like some kind of image or something, in terms of the experience. So do you mind if I kind of try something else with that? If empathy is a type of animal, what kind of animal would it be?

DOMINIC: I heard you say animal, but what I saw is a plant. So I’m going to answer in that sense.
When I’m taking care of a plant, the plants on my balcony, then what I’m interested in is what supports them to grow. So, empathy is like this super food. It’s not exactly sunshine, it’s not exactly water. It’s not exactly the soil. It’s something else which imbues all of these and creates the conditions for growth.

 So, empathy is like this super food.
 It’s not exactly sunshine, it’s not exactly water.
It’s not exactly the soil. It’s something else which imbues
 all of these and creates the conditions for growth.

I want it to be silently, invisibly, or visibly present – not simply in moments in which someone is experiencing pain and would really like to be heard. I would like it to be the baseline from which I establish relationships when they don’t exist, care for those relationships when they do exist, and heal those relationships that are being diminished in some way by distance and mistrust, by separation and disagreement.

So it’s a quality of nutrition that human beings, and perhaps humans and the animals can exchange which creates the conditions for growth, for movement, for that which takes us deeper into a sense of living together, of being one.

A French translation by Jean-David Roth (Videos 1-3)
A propos de l'empathie, avec Dominic Barter.
Dominic Barter (interrogé par Edwin Rutsch sur la nature de l'empathie)

Une des choses que j'expérimente quand l'empathie est présente, est que les obstacles vers l'action, qui n'excluent pas, sont enlevés.
Donc l'une de manières dont je peux identifier que l'empathie est présente, est que quoique ce soit qui gêne l'action est parti, ... et que la qualité que cette action a, est qu'elle tend à inclure, elle connecte, elle rassemble les morceaux, elle résout ce qui semblait avoir été lié et attaché par des noeuds.

Oui... Et je peux me rappeler d'une situation dans un groupe de pratique, où quelqu'un est venu et a dit,
Oh, j'en ai tellement marre de la situation avec mon petit ami, et je suis rentrée l'autre soir, et j'avais travaillé toute la journée, et il était assis sur le canapé regardant la tv en passant d'un canal à l'autre, et il y avait cette grosse pile de vaisselle. Et elle ressentait de la douleur qu'elle a pu exprimer et faire entendre alentour, et elle se sentait beaucoup mieux. Et ce fut super. Et elle est rentrée à la maison, et tout, de son expérience de cela, sembla très différente.
Et la semaine suivante on se rencontra à nouveau dans un groupe de pratique, et elle dit :
Je ne peux y croire, je suis si préoccupée, je suis rentrée à la maison sur mon vélo, et mon petit ami était assis sur le canapé, et il fumait et regardait la télévision, et il y avait cette pile de vaisselle... Et elle a pu faire entendre sa souffrance à nouveau. Et je me dis... la semaine prochaine, je ne suis pas si sûr de ce qui va se passer... mais j'ai l'impression qu'elle va dire : la même chose est arrivée à nouveau...

Donc ... écouter la souffrance de quelqu'un, ce qui est une expérience qui nous donne vraiment du soutient et nous régénère pour beaucoup d'entre nous, est vraiment un élément clé, mais pour moi, ce n'est pas la pièce que je recherche, car ce n'est pas la pièce qui enlève ce qui bloque l'action. Si cela ne se traduit pas par une nouvelle relation entre ces deux personnes, une initiative pour récupérer le pouvoir de vraiment m'exprimer et créer le changement, car c'est à cela que je voudrais réserver la dénomination d'empathie.
Donc je peux écouter comme un ami ce que dit quelqu'un d'autre, et cela peut avoir beaucoup de valeur, mais il y a quelque chose de vraiment unique à propos de l'empathie, en cela qu'elle désencombre les choses qui bloquent l'action. Et elle me connecte à la fois à l'intérieur et à d'autres gens, d'une manière qui est transformante. Mais j'aime le mot empathie, il me suggère plus qu'une compréhension de ce qui est arrivé à quelqu'un, mais presque comme une sorte de prêt de ma manière de les percevoir que je leur fait. Qui les aide à se reconnecter à eux-mêmes d'une manière plus profonde.

Et quand on se reconnecte vraiment vraiment intérieurement, nous découvrons que nous avons une richesse d'options (ndlr: ou: quantité de choix). Et nous... La joie de vivre est notre engagement dans ce qui arrive autour de nous... de célébrer et d'encourager ces choses qui sont en ligne avec nos valeurs, et de prendre contact avec les choses qui ne le sont pas pour les inviter à se transformer, donc c'est cela que je recherche, cette connexion intérieure qui me conduit à l'action. La connexion intérieure vit à l'intérieur de moi, et c'est avec cela que je suis capable d'entrer en relation avec quelqu'un d'autre d'une manière qui n'est pas soumise par rapport à eux, ni en train de tenter de les dominer. Donc c'est pour cela que je dis "cela enlève les obstacles vers l'action (ndlr : ici quelque chose que je n'ai pas compris) ou vers l'action qui est inclusive. Donc je décris l'empathie comme l'une des conditions qui me permet de me connecter intérieurement, et par conséquent d'agir d'une manière qui ne crée pas de la séparation ou de la distance, mais amène les gens ensemble et crée du pouvoir, de manière basique, à travers du partenariat, du désir de co-créer (=créer ensemble) les conditions dans lesquelles nous voulons vivre. Je pense... enfin..., quand ce mot était peu répandu, vous savez, il est récent, quand il ne l'était pas encore, j'aimais en parler dans des communautés dans lesquelles ce mot n'était pas courant, j'aime beaucoup être capable d'identifier la dynamique spécifique, pour que les cercles restauratifs euh, euh créent les conditions pour, et la nommer, pour que les gens puissent commencer à en parler de manière plus consciente. Mais dans d'autres communautés dans lesquelles ce mot est beaucoup utilisé, et parfois pour désigner quelque chose qui pour moi n'a pas le même pouvoir que celui auquel je suis intéressé et que je veux promouvoir, alors je tends à ne pas l'utiliser (ndlr: ce mot d'empathie) parce que quand ils l'entendent, les gens pensent "Oh, je sais déjà ce que cela est". C'est pourquoi j'utilise verbalement alors "sentiments et besoins" (ndlr : des concepts fortement "Communication Non Violente") pour parler à ces autres personnes. Et cela peut être un puissant mode d'emploi intérieur pour moi, comme je prête ma présence, à quelqu'un d'autre, comme une aide pour lui à se reconnecter avec lui-même de manière interne...

Mais je ne vois pas cela ou n'importe quoi d'autre comme étant un mode d'emploi de l'empathie. Je ne veux réduire l'empathie à aucune manière particulière de parler, ou aucun truc ou procédure que je vais utiliser avec les autres gens. Cela a fondamentalement pour moi à voir avec le fait d'être pleinement et authentiquement présent avec vous d'une manière telle que cette qualité de présence devienne quasiment contagieuse. Et que votre organisme est soutenu pour se reconnecter avec lui-même à l'intérieur, et de ce fait, capable, volontaire, engagé pour monter sur la prochaine marche.

Edwin Rutsch :
Donc, vous ne nous avez pas amené là parce que ... je fais juste de la spéculation, il y a beaucoup de gens qui ont fait des expériences de la NVC (CNV en français = Communication Non Violente) et ils ont une certaine définition de l'empathie, et vous pensiez que cela risquait d'embrouiller la discussion?

Dominic Barter:
De ma compréhension de la CNV et de ma compréhension de ce que je fais dans les cercles restauratifs, la qualité d'empathie dont nous parlons est exactement la même. Mais au fur et à mesure que la CNV devient plus connue, et que beaucoup d'entre nous ont, parce que nous tous en avons au final une compréhension partielle, j'ai vu beaucoup d'exemples de gens qui faisaient quelque chose qu'elles appelaient de l'empathie, mais qui à mon sens n'accroissait pas le degré de connexion à soi que la personne recevait de cette présence. Et c'est cela la qualité que je cherche vraiment à trouver. (Sous-entendu: celle qui accroît chez l'autre personne la connexion à elle-même qu'elle obtient). Donc cela ne me fait rien, si on ne l'appelle pas empathie. Mais pour l'instant, j'utilise ce mot pour décrire cette qualité.

End of translation.



Resolving Conflict Through Restorative Justice 

"Restorative Justice is an alternative to the judicial system that is proving successful around the world in keeping youth offenders out of jail and reducing recidivism. A partner process, Restorative Circles, is a community-based system that supports those involved in conflict by bringing together the parties involved and creating conditions for mutually beneficial action.

Dominic Barter is an internationally recognized expert on restorative justice. In the 1990s, he developed Restorative Circles in the favelas of Brazil and the process has been applied on the community level in 22 countries and has been used as a part of award-winning government projects in justice and educational and social services"

Toward Peace and Justice in Brazil: Dominic Barter and Restorative Circles -  Joshua Wachtel
"In the mid-1990s, Dominic Barter began working with favela residents, including drug gang members, to help them strengthen nonviolent options for working with young people. “I saw violence as a monologue,” said Barter. “All the state and gang responses to violence were more of the same. I wanted to create a dialogue.” In early 2005 he helped organize the country’s first public presentation on restorative practices, at the Brazil-based annual World Social Forum. The Ministry of Justice heard Barter’s presentation and hired him to develop a conferencing model and train facilitators for two of three new pilot projects, in São Paulo and Porto Alegre."

More videos

Other Interviews from the Oakland  Workshop

  Empathy Documentary - Mikhail Lyubansky on Empathy and Authoritarian Family (1 of 2)    

Mikhail Lyubansky on Empathy and Authoritarian Family (1 of 2)


  Empathy Documentary - Mikhail Lyubansky Empathy is like a Kangaroo v Lion (2 of 2)    

Mikhail Lyubansky Empathy is like a Kangaroo v Lion (2 of 2)


  Empathy Documentary - David S Smith on Empathy and Restorative Circles (1 of 2)    

David S Smith on Empathy and Restorative Circles (1 of 2)

  Empathy Documentary - David S Smith Empathy is like a Kite and String (2 of 2)    

David S Smith Empathy is like a Kite and String (2 of 2)

  Empathy Documentary - Jack Lehman on Empathy (1 of 2)    

Jack Lehman on Empathy (1 of 2)

  Empathy Documentary - Jack Lehman - Self-Empathy is like Listening (2 of 2)    

Jack Lehman - Self-Empathy is like Listening (2 of 2)

  Empathy Documentary - Patrick Siebert on Empathy (1 of 2)    

Patrick Siebert on Empathy (1 of 2)

  Empathy Documentary - Patrick Siebert Empathy is like a Common Breath (2 of 2)    

Patrick Siebert Empathy is like a Common Breath (2 of 2)

  Empathy Documentary - Susan Holper on Empathy and Role Playing (1 of 2)    

Susan Holper on Empathy and Role Playing