Free Speech, The Empathy Tent, and Constructive
By Lou Zweier, Dave Gottfried and Edwin Rutsch
What is the meaning of "Free Speech" if people don't listen to each
other? We hear from all sides and every quarter that there is a need for
constructive dialogue on so many critical issues; for people who
disagree to start listening to each other. We strongly agree, and we
have been passionately pursuing creating space for such dialogues both
face-to-face and online. We also see that many are afraid to engage in
dialogue on emotionally charged topics because of where things might
lead. This is as true at public protests as it is in homes and community
meetings. How do we think about and discuss these kinds of issues
constructively? How might we do this without dehumanizing each other and
scapegoating? How might we begin to hear each other and empathize even
if we don't agree?
Members of the political left and right in facilitated constructive
The Empathy Tent is a project of the Center for Building a Culture of
Empathy founded by Edwin Rutsch in 2002. Edwin created the Empathy Tent
as a portable pop-up space where we provide listening to anyone who
wants it, and where we invite people to listen to each other regardless
of point of view. We use a simple structured dialogue process based in
active listening and skillful facilitation. Since the 2016 presidential
election we have brought our Empathy Tent to the front line at rallies
in Berkeley and throughout California that feature left/right conflict
to create a space for empathy and constructive dialogue. We've
facilitated dialogues between opposing rally organizers in San
Francisco, between the leader of an impeach Trump rally in L.A and
counter protesters, and with white supremacists. Our purpose is to help
people understand one another and to begin to see each other as
individuals, as people, rather than as stereotypes or ideological
Empathy tent personnel helping facilitate peaceful discussion.
The Empathy Tent is an emotionally and intellectually risky space where
participants can say whatever they want. Our process is different than
normal conversation because turn taking is structured and the speaker's
feelings and thoughts are reflected back to them until they feel fully
heard. The speaker then becomes the listener. Participating equally in
mutual listening and speaking results in a feeling that people are
working to understand each other rather than competing to defeat each
other. It also slows dialogue down so that everyone has a chance to
reflect on what's being said. This has a surprising effect on both the
listener and the speaker, and on others present. In this way our
structured process creates a strong container for difficult dialogues,
and the possibility for transformation. In Los Angeles we mediated
between 6 pairs of participants with one person from each side. Each
mediation ended with a strong connection between the participants and an
agreement to continue online with video conferencing. 50-100 people
ended up hanging around in proximity to our tent, many dialoguing
respectfully amidst strong disagreements over immigration and other
To people who say that there are some not worth talking to we would say
this: It is true that not all attempts at dialogue are successful, but
that doesn't mean it's not worth trying. We have been consistently
amazed at the false assumptions that emerge on all sides when people
really start listening to each other. It's also important to understand
that listening and reflecting back to a speaker does not mean that you
agree in any way. Our process is about each person feeling understood
and heard for what is important to them, and the shifts that potentially
come from that, not about agreeing with what anyone says.
Empathy Circle discussions at a Unite the Right Rally
As an example, a Jewish member of our team participated in dialogue with
members of Identity Evropa, a white supremacist group. When one of them
asked "what is Nazism anyway" the Jewish speaker responded "For me
Nazism means that half my extended family was killed, that my father at
age 10 and his immediate family were forced to flee Austria, and that
the surviving members of my family are now spread all over the world".
The Identitarian responded "but the Nazis were just trying to eliminate
the communists". The facilitator then intervened and asked the listener
to reflect back what the speaker is saying. An Identitarian even jumped
in and told his friend "yeah, that is what you have to do". Despite what
was clearly something that was difficult to voice, especially publicly,
the Identitarian was finally able to say "so for you, Nazism means that
half your family was killed, your father at age 10 became a refugee ..."
This is a clear example of why to engage in structured dialogue
regardless of where you stand. You will be heard to your satisfaction.
all, if we refuse to listen to each other,
what is the alternative?"
We acknowledge that listening and understanding each other is not all
that is needed to resolve conflict. It is an important first step. We
want to provide support for people to engage in this first step so that
understanding and trust has the possibility to grow, and so that
learning how to do this can be passed on to others. After all, if we
refuse to listen to each other, what is the alternative?
A conservative and a Berkeley progressive hug after taking part in
an Empathy Circle dialogue about gun control.
We can be reached at EmpathyTent.com.