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Culture of Empathy Builder:  Tom Atlee

Big Empathy: Expanding, Practicing and Systemic Change Empathy
Tom Atlee

Tom Atlee is an American social, peace and environmental activist. He is author of Empowering Public Wisdom,  Reflections on Evolutionary Activism and The Tao of Democracy: Using Co-Intelligence to Create a World that Works for All. Tom's social change vision is grounded most deeply in new understandings of evolving wholeness which recognize the value of diversity, unity, relationship, context, uniqueness and the spirit inside each of us and the world. He has written numerous articles and blog posts about empathy. In 2014 he was given the Empathic Individualism Award Recipient from the Hawthorne Valley Center for Social Research.


"Big Empathy is about expanding our empathy to embrace
the suffering and well-being of more of life, more deeply,
 more competently, and more seamlessly than
we normally do."



Tom writes: "The co-intelligence worldview embraces empathy as a fundamental principle, while noting its limitations when framed only as an individual feeling. Empathy plays a powerful role in the wise use of intelligence.

Like intelligence, empathy can be exercised in narrow ways that result in undesirable outcomes or in enlightened ways that support wisdom. Also like intelligence, expanded forms of empathy can be embedded in cultures and social systems to generate wiser collective outcomes.

Tom Atlee's major essay Big Empathy proposes that we need to expand our empathy in three ways:

1. widen our "circle of care" to include more beings of more species over greater time periods;
2. become better practitioners of empathy; and
3. embed empathy in our cultures and social systems."

Sub Conference: Empathy Movement Building




4 - Big Empathy


Big Empathy: Expanding, Practicing & System Change Empathy - Tom Atlee & Edwin Rutsch  


Tom Atlee: 2014 Empathic Individualism Award Recipient
Our first annual Empathic Individualism Award recipient is Tom Atlee, Director of the Co-Intelligence Institute in Eugene, Oregon. This award is given to individuals who make an outstanding contribution to the understanding and application of empathy in social life with an emphasis of balancing individuality and active caring for others.

Overview Page: Co-Intelligent Perspectives on Empathy
"The co-intelligence worldview embraces empathy as a fundamental principle, while noting its limitations when framed as an individual feeling. Empathy plays a powerful role in the wise use of intelligence. Like intelligence, empathy can be embedded in cultures and social systems to generate wiser outcomes.
Tom Atlee's major essay on the subject of "big empathy" is "Big Empathy" which proposes that we need to expand our empathy in three ways:..."

Six Paths to Greater Empathy
Big Empathy is about expanding our empathy to embrace the suffering and well-being of more of life, more deeply, more competently, and more seamlessly than we normally do. Below are six potentially complementary paths – not methods, but general approaches – to developing greater empathy. Of course, in order to enhance empathy, they must be undertaken with a desire to truly connect with the Other.

1. LISTENING – I’m speaking here of deep listening, empathic listening, reflective listening – listening intended to deeply understand the Other so that they feel truly understood....

2. SELF AWARENESS – We are all universal beings....

3. NARRATIVE ARTS – Stories can help us experience the inner and outer life of the Other. ...

4. IMMERSION – It is one thing to listen to, read or think about someone else’s life experience. It is quite another to actually live our life like theirs for a while. This is immersive empathy....

5. SCIENCES – Understanding causal and functional dynamics can deepen our capacity to enter into experiences and realities otherwise alien to us. ...

6. RESPONSIVE CARING – In caring, our empathic sensibilities merge with our will. "

Realizing Empathy as Part of Co-Intelligence
"Few people – including myself until recently – have realized how important empathy is to co-intelligence. Here I focus on four important connectors between empathy and co-intelligence – being heard, random selection, effective deep understanding, and resonant intelligence – that are fundamental to the creation of a truly wise democracy.

Late in March I was told that I would be given the first Credere award for promoting “empathic individualism”.

At first this struck me as odd. While I have written about empathy a number of times, it has certainly not been my central focus. Furthermore, I know a number of colleagues for whom empathy IS their focus – and some of them are doing excellent work worthy of such an award. "

Upshifting our limited empathy to face Big Issues
"Our empathy is built in us with a kind of disconnect which can make it hard to usefully integrate our feelings with our reason. This has profound implications for the climate crisis, the possibilities of nuclear war, and many other “extinction level” issues. A leading negotiator offers a provocative story to stimulate our thinking about this, to which I add some videos.

Dear friends, Our empathy is built into most of us, but with a kind of disconnect which makes it hard for us to integrate our feelings with our reason – especially when we face giant issues with widespread but distant or hidden dangers."

Evolving Empathy, personal and systemic
"Empathy starts out as a personal feeling of resonance with another’s pain or joy. It moves on to become the practice of stepping into another’s shoes – and having them feel heard and understood. We need our empathy to expand and evolve so that it embraces more people and living things, and so that it shows up as part of our cultures and our social systems – not only helping us feel more empathy but also stimulating the products of empathy – bonding, partnership, and mutual aid – even when we are not personally feeling particularly empathetic. We need all this more than ever, since we have become so thoroughly interdependent. Our ability to survive and thrive – even being effectively self-interested – actually depends on it."

Empathy notes #1: Reconceptualizing Security (on Interdependence Day)
"Empathy – the ability to put ourselves in another’s shoes – has been an ideal of many if not most religions for millennia. Some call it compassion. Some call it love. Its moral imperative can be found in the numerous versions of the Golden Rule. In its most extreme form we find it in the admonition to “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

And today, after thousands of years, empathy has become a practical necessity, a matter of enlightened – and even not-so-enlightened – self-interest. Many reasons for this could be cited, but here’s a major one that has yet to blossom in public consciousness:"

Empathy notes #2: Imagining Real National Security – Empathy versus Empire
"Current approaches to “defense” and “security” often damage our actual well-being rather than enhancing it. The massive resources currently wasted on counterproductive strategies of “defense” and “security” can be invested to promote real security. National and global security regimes can get real by grounding their work in empathy and addressing universal human needs."

Empathy notes #3: Empathy versus rationality?
by Tom Atlee
"Obviously Bloom and Harris-Gershon are making excellent points – especially that we need to expand beyond the narrow focus of most empathy. But there is a serious fallacy in their reasoning: they pose empathy and reason as opposed sides in a dichotomy. They have framed the issue as reason, logic, and statistics VERSUS emotion, empathy, and compassion. While acknowledging the value of empathy, both essayists argue that reason is far superior for dealing with today’s challenges. However, their arguments narrowly focus on the shortcomings of empathy, neglecting the considerable shortcomings of rationality.

Empathy notes #4: Toward an era of wise caring
"Reason and feeling each have gifts and limitations. Used well together they generate wise caring. There are examples of wise caring in earlier human societies and we have an opportunity today to build on them and enhance that capacity in our whole civilization."

Down deep within us – underlying everything that we think, feel and do – we find our needs burning brightly along with our values (the cultural expression of our needs). When I say “needs” I’m referring to deep universal needs, such as our needs for love, expression, nutrition, control, respect, etc. I’m not referring to the specific desires and strategies we pursue – like a new car or time with our children – in an effort to meet those fundamental needs.

Empathy notes #4: Toward an era of wise caring
"Here are seven compelling videos that invite us into empathic relationship with the lives of others and/or exemplify different dimensions of empathy in action."



Tom Atlee interview: At the 2012 National Conference on Dialogue & Deliberation


Asheville Tom Atlee 2