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.
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 bond.
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
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
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.
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
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.
EDWIN: If you scan back over your life, are there moments when you
learned about empathy, like saying, ďOh, I just learned this
lesson about the nature of empathyĒ, and can you recount that
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: Iíd 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 donít think Iíve ever done that and not heard a large number
of people saying ďIt feels really good to be heardĒ. And I take
that as a clue, and I follow that deeper: ďWhat is it that is so
good about being heard?Ē
ďWell, Iím seeing. I become visible. Iím being understoodĒ.
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 Iím
experiencing it from this viewpoint.
And that is profoundly empowering. And once we are empowered, we
transform, because thatís what the most fun to do Ė we support the
things that are working for us, and we engage with the things that
So I prefer to invite people to experience the quality that weíre
calling empathy rather than talking about it or illustrating it,
or telling stories about it. Because itís 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
Iím interested in deepening that for myself, and sharing that with
others as best I can.
EDWIN: Thereís a lot of new science out about the mirror neurons.
Iím wondering if youíve been following that, and have you made the
connection between what youíre 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
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 itís 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 Ė 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 Ė 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
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. Thereís a gap
between our ability to do that, and the society in that we want to
Itís not sustainable to live in the way that weíre doing -- unless
we recover this ability to see each other as being human first of
Iím 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 Ė
for want of a better word Ė 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.
But I donít 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, Iím 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 Iíd 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 itís just the first few seconds of whatever
needs to be done. So Iíd like to invite people to join this
EDWIN: Do you have a metaphor,
something that works for you to describe the experience of empathy
in metaphorical terms.
DOMINIC: I donít think I do I like the word presence. The first
three letters of the word presence, the suffix meaning ďthat which
comes beforeĒ Ė pre. And the rout of the word means ďto beĒ. The
ďsenĒ 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. Itís not a
skill. I donít accumulate presence or the ability to be present.
And yet it is in some way a practice Ė 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
So my understanding is that when I connect empathically to someone
else, what Iím doing is Iím turning up the volume on my presence
in such a way that it includes them. And Iím inviting them to
experience me as being fully present with them.
I may be judging them Ė 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 doesnít 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 Ė 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 thatís 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: Itís not quite a metaphor in terms of turning it into Ė
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 Iím
going to answer in that sense.
When Iím taking care of a plant, the plants on my balcony, then
what Iím interested in is what supports them to grow. So, empathy
is like this super food. Itís not exactly sunshine, itís not
exactly water. Itís not exactly the soil. Itís something else
which imbues all of these and creates the conditions for growth.
I want it to be silently, invisibly, or visibly present Ė 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 donít 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 itís 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.
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