What is an Empathy Circle?


An Empathy Circle is an EXTREMELY SIMPLE structured dialogue format based in active listening. You can learn the process in A FEW MINUTES. The process increases mutual understanding and connection by ensuring that each person feels fully heard to their satisfaction.Once you have learned the process you can teach others. If a circle becomes very contentious, a skilled facilitator can help to hold the structure.

Many of us are good communicators; we listen, we don’t interrupt, we don’t hog the conversation. When things get heated however, we’re not always so well behaved. It’s amazing how much one can learn about one’s own communication process by participating in an Empathy Circle.

“If You Are Willing to Listen You Will be Heard”

Exercise Your Communication Skills


How Do We Do an Empathy Circle?

These are the basic instructions for holding an empathy circle.

Group Size. This is a description for a group of 3 to 5 participants (4 is ideal). If there are more people, divide the larger group into smaller groups of no more than 5 in a circle.

Roles. Participants take the roles of Speaker, Active Listener, or Silent Listener at different times during the Circle. 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 Role


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.

Active Listener

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.

Silent Listeners

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 learned…

…how hard it is to really listen deeply and how much my own thoughts get in the way, especially when I disagree with what the other person is saying.

…how important it is to speak in ways that allow the listener to understand and reflect what I am saying

I liked...

... the opportunity to listen, share, be heard and be seen.

... being heard, and getting some practice in being heard!

... practicing empathy to get better at listening.

... the structure of this practice allowed and facilitated connection and understanding with my partners.

... I enjoyed hearing about other people's life experiences and seeing how productive the practice of active listening and feedback encourages authentic communication.

... being able to practice empathy, especially reflective listening.

... 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.