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December 2019

November 2019

September 2019


Creating the conditions for empathy

By Sharona Halpern

In New England, we are in our final days of summer. Every day of blue skies and summer breezes feels like a gift.  I am happy that my windows are still wide open most of the time.

A few years ago, a group from GISC spent a day with Laura Chasin, a family therapist, and a colleague and friend of the Nevis’.  She introduced us to the Public Conversations Project, a program she founded in 1989, which applies tools from family therapy to facilitating dialogue between groups who have opposing political perspectives and views. The methodology is simple and user friendly. It requires a facilitator to hold the space and structure, establish agreements among the participants that support uninterrupted expression of ideas, one at a time, and sets an underlying rule that no one tries to persuade or convince the other party. (If you want to know more, look up Public Conversations Project)

In my work, I am often asked to intervene in conflict situations. This summer, a couple I had been seeing for awhile arrived for their session stuck in a contentious conflict. They had a big decision to make that impacted them both, and that they were experiencing from opposing viewpoints. They reported that at home they had debated the issue, and found themselves feeling angry and misunderstood. I thought about the Public Conversations Project, and suggested an experiment. I set the expectations: The outcome of the decision would be set aside. No persuasion or challenge to the other point of view was allowed. Each person would have a chance to speak. After they spoke, we would pause. The listener could then ask questions that were exclusively meant to clarify or deepen their understanding of the other’s point of view and feelings. They did the experiment. When we debriefed it, they talked about feeling noticeably softer toward the other. They were surprised, since they came in feeling so defensive, stuck and hopeless. In our next session, I was not surprised to learn that they had made a decision, and that they were living pretty well with it, despite the fact that someone had to be disappointed.

Lately, I have been thinking that much of my work with couples, and with teams experiencing conflict, is about creating the conditions for empathy. I think most of us believe that empathy is the entry point to the solution to our personal and political conflicts. However, empathy gets lost when we are scared, disappointed or angry. Most of us know what having empathy feels like, and we know what it feels like when we lose it, when we are in conflict. We fight to be understood but don’t often fight as hard to be understanding. The assumption that the other wants to understand us as much as we want to  be understood, requires a great deal of support and trust. In our work, we can provide that support and framework, helping people move through conflict toward empathy. I find this part of my work important and satisfying.

A few words about what is coming up at GISC, and in particular in CCTP. We are excited to be offering a Fourth Week (for the first time!) in London, November 8-12. If you have taken CCTP and taken the Third Week, please consider joining us, to deepen your learning and practice of the Cape Cod Model. If you have not taken the Third Week, please contact us, as the Third Week is not necessarily required to participate in the Fourth. We are also planning the next Third Week for Spring 2020. Let us know soon if you are interested, as The Third Week has consistently sold out. Talk to someone who has participated to find out more, and of course, write or call any of the faculty for more information. We are always glad to hear from you.


Sharona (on behalf of Joe, Carol, Stuart and Nancy)

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