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Can Empathy Heal Democracy?

How to listen across intractable conflict.

War in Gaza has been raging for six months now, the result of a long-running and deeply entrenched conflict with nuances difficult to capture. Students across the nation are protesting. Many people are shouting. But is anyone really listening? How do we listen to one another in times of intractable conflict?

At the height of the troubles in Northern Ireland, the humanistic psychotherapist Carl Rogers brought Protestants and Catholics together for what was known as an “encounter group.” The goal was to facilitate dialogue across the divide.

The first challenge was getting people from both sides into the same room—itself no small feat. Rogers worked closely with trusted community leaders on the ground to convince people that it was okay to participate in such a group. They rightly feared being ostracized by their respective communities. Even being open to hearing the other side could be seen as an act of betrayal and therefore, privacy was of the utmost importance.

Rogers then traveled to Belfast to facilitate the group’s interactions. For 16 hours, they talked. At first, there was “nothing but bitterness” and hostility. People recounted stories of family members killed by bombs. A Protestant woman said that if she saw a wounded IRA man on the street, she would step on him. The anger and hurt of a centuries-old conflict needed to be aired. Slowly, though, the barriers broke down. By the end of the session, people began to hear one another and to develop real understanding—and even care—across group lines.

Rogers and his colleagues had no money for follow-up. They thought “that was it.” A brief window of understanding had opened, but how soon would it be closed? Group members couldn’t easily share their affinity for the other side outside the safe space of the group. The danger of being shot for such sentiments was still very real.

Nonetheless—and to Rogers’ great surprise—the group continued to meet. They quietly spread the word, sharing film of their encounter with youth groups and church groups. Paramilitary forces destroyed four copies of it—itself a sign of the power of the group’s efforts at reconciliation.

Of course, it would take more than an encounter group to end the conflict. Peace-building is a slow process. But it is one that requires talking and listening, something that psychotherapists like Rogers were especially well-poised to facilitate. What made the psychotherapeutic approach so powerful? Rogers held that empathy was key.

Rogers thought of empathy as a complex, multifaceted, and dynamic way of being with another person. He writes:

“The way of being with another person which is termed empathic . . . . means entering the private perceptual world of the other and becoming thoroughly at home in it. . . . .It means temporarily living in his/her life, moving about in it delicately without making judgments, sensing meanings of which he/she is scarcely aware . . . . It means frequently checking with him/her as to the accuracy of your sensings, and being guided by the responses you receive. You are a confident companion to the person in his/her inner world . . . .” (Rogers 1975, p. 4).

Rogers’ description of the empathic process here is expansive and even poetic. It makes empathy a process of perceiving and experiencing, of constant checking and communication. It makes empathy dynamic, something that can move with changes in people’s perceptions and that perhaps even facilitates those changes. Through empathy, people iteratively come to understand one another and themselves.

This process of empathizing is important because it is a way of listening—of hearing not only the words that are being said but what weight they hold. This way of listening is also a way of valuing someone as a person whose perspective is worth hearing. As a facilitator working with an encounter group, Rogers saw himself as modeling empathy and creating space for it to take root in other members of the group, thereby leading them to hear and to value one another.

Watching Rogers conduct an encounter group and listening to him speak about efforts to continue the dialogue even in the face of real social, material, and physical dangers, it is difficult not to be persuaded of the power of empathy.

But there are real challenges and risks associated with empathizing. For example, some question the scalability of empathizing in the complex way Rogers had in mind. It takes time and patience. It is by its nature local, fostering interpersonal connections between individuals in small groups. It’s hard to extrapolate from those local interactions to large groups, especially when conflict is involved. While these issues are important, they are practical ones, surmountable with more resources—time, energy, humility, and care.

A more serious issue is: What do we do when people do not want to listen to one another and, relatedly, when they do not want to value one another? I think this is the real challenge that we are facing in many of our conflicts today.

When we engage with one another—and perhaps especially when we engage empathically—we risk being changed by the other person. What kind of a change do we risk?

One possibility is that we might change our minds—that we might come to agree with a perspective that we had previously disavowed. But this is a risk not only of empathic engagement but also of any effort at reasoned discussion. If we give up on empathy because it might change our minds, it would seem that we have given up on deliberation and democracy.

And isn’t a changing of minds part of the point of deliberation? I want to reclaim the phrase “change of mind” here from those who would use it to imply dichotomy and full-scale conversion—as though when I change my mind I oscillate between two mutually incompatible viewpoints. I am using it to suggest an opening of perspective so that the iterative process of changing one another so central to empathy might occur.

A second possibility is perhaps scarier—that is, that we might change our hearts and, furthermore, that this process will be painful. This is a risk specific to empathic engagement because it involves getting close to someone, sometimes a little too close for comfort. As Rogers writes, we enter the “private perceptual world of the other” and become “thoroughly at home in it” (1975). Do we lose ourselves in this process?

Rogers points out that the empathic way of being involves momentarily laying aside the self. This does not, however, mean abandoning it. Quite the contrary. One must be strong enough to recognize the distinction between self and other. Furthermore, empathizing with someone does not always, or even usually, mean agreeing with them. It does, however, require that you take them seriously as a person. It does require a commitment to listening and understanding even when you don’t agree.

But should you listen even when the other person is saying something harmful? This is, I think, the most difficult of questions about empathy, and it’s the one that becomes most pressing in cases of conflict. Engaging empathically across conflict means taking seriously those who have harmed you or those whom you love. This is painful. And it may entail its own harm.

There are no easy answers to this question. To engage empathically with someone who has hurt you requires bravery and safety as well as the right conditions, where the other person is equally open and ready to listen. These conditions do not always exist, but we can create them. This is where we must attend to the details, to the how of fostering empathic engagement. Rogers, for example, worked closely with community leaders on the ground to engender trust, to quell people’s fears, and to ready them for the hard work of empathizing. By attending to these details, perhaps we can mitigate the potential pains and harms of empathizing.

Empathy’s biggest danger is also its greatest strength. Empathy humanizes by demanding that we take the other seriously as a person. It makes it difficult to demonize and to maintain entrenched divisions and conflicts—which is perhaps why paramilitary forces in Northern Ireland wanted so urgently to destroy evidence of its effectiveness. When we see one another with empathy, there can be no monsters.


Rogers, C. R. (1975). Empathic: An Unappreciated Way of Being. The Counseling Psychologist, 5(2), 2-10 (p. 4).

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