Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


Bridging Divergence: Developing Common Ground

Pairing empathy groups with mindfulness training.

As the social, political, and religious fault lines in our country deepen, many of my clients and students report that it has become increasingly difficult to connect with those who hold different points of view. With initiatives such as workshops, retreats, and educational offerings, we all too often end up ‘preaching to the choir,’ and staying in our in-group.

The deep divergence in our culture leaves many of us feeling alienated and afraid [1]. Pervasive feelings of anxiety take away a sense of inner security. Sociological research shows us that fear of others blocks our empathy for them, which in turn deepens racial, religious, and socio-economic rifts [2].

The good news is that we can change, and the barriers of differences can be overcome. As we begin to listen to others and learn to understand their concerns, the ‘us’ versus ‘them’ barrier decreases. With understanding, we realize that we are not at all as different from one another as we thought, and this is what allows empathy to gradually emerge [3].

How can empathy be restored after our capacity to relate to others has been reduced? “Understanding leads to compassion,” author Bernhard Schlink writes us in his book, The Reader. Developing empathy is a powerful way to learn to listen and understand [4]. The practice of empathy is also known to contribute to improved interpersonal relationships and to build trust. As people become more attuned to connection and cooperation with others, even those who have radically different belief systems and behaviors, increased compassion, as well as pro-social behavior, increases [5]. Therefore, training in empathy practices can foster understanding and appreciation of diverse perspectives and experiences leading to increased inclusivity and a reduction of divisive biases and stereotypes [6].

Compassion, like empathy, has significant positive effects on physical, emotional, and social health and itself can create more empathy towards others [7]. Mindfulness practice decreases anxiety, builds a sense of inner security and furthers an increased willingness to listen and be open.

It is especially potent when we augment these practices with open hearted awareness, or what is often called ‘natural awareness’. Natural awareness typically refers to a state of consciousness that is characterized by a non-conceptual, non-effortful, and spontaneous awareness of the present moment. It is often associated with a sense of being fully present in life without mental commentary or judgment. It is considered to exist prior to and independent of our thoughts, emotions, and perceptions. Natural awareness is assumed to be ever-present and unchanging and does not originate in our conceptual or cognitive minds. Evidence of natural awareness can be seen in the EEG data from subjects experiencing meditative awake awareness [8]. When a person rests in natural awareness, they feel awake, unafraid, and calm. Further, they show an increased ability to be compassionate, even when encountering those who are experienced as different. Various contemplative and spiritual traditions emphasize the use of meditation and mindfulness practices to experience natural awareness.

For the past 15 years, Edwin Rutsch and associates of the empathy circle initiative have been working to raise the level of understanding and tolerance in society. An ‘empathy circle’ is a structured dialogue process designed to foster empathic listening among participants. The goal is to create a safe and supportive free speech environment where people can express their thoughts and feelings openly, while others listen attentively without judgment. The empathy circle practice is based on the belief that fostering empathic understanding can lead to increased compassion, improved communication, mutual comprehension, and reduced conflicts, which leads to a sense of connection, community, collaboration and innovation, even when there are differing points of view. Feeling part of a community rather than alienated and unsafe decreases anxiety and unease.

With Santa Barbara’s Empathy Center, a project has started to use empathy circles and non-dual mindfulness meditations in a complementary fashion. Day-long retreats are offered which include non-dual mindfulness and compassion practices as well as empathy circles. It is a reasonable assumption that mindfulness practices, paired with empathy circles, could potentiate each other’s effectiveness [9]. The goal is to potentiate the individual’s and group’s capacity for empathy, mutual understanding, and connection and eventually foster participants’ ability to connect to those holding divergent points of view and ultimately move towards a world where fear is replaced by confidence and love.


Gutsell, J. and M. Inzlicht, Intergroup differences in the sharing of emotive states: Neural evidence of an empathy gap. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 2012. 7(5): p. 596–603.

Molenberghs, P., The neuroscience of in-group bias. Neurosci Biobehav Rev, 2013. 37(8): p. 1530-6.

de Waal, F.B., Putting the altruism back into altruism: the evolution of empathy. Annu Rev Psychol, 2008. 59: p. 279-300.

Hu, T.Y., et al., Helping Others, Warming Yourself: Altruistic Behaviors Increase Warmth Feelings of the Ambient Environment. Front Psychol, 2016. 7: p. 1349.

Bruneau, E. and R. Saxe, The Power of Being Heard: The Benefits of 'Perspective-Giving' in the Context of Intergroup Conflict. Journal of experimental social psychology, 2012. 7(5).

Murfield, J., W. Moyle, and A. O'Donovan, Mindfulness- and compassion-based interventions for family carers of older adults: A scoping review. Int J Nurs Stud, 2021. 116: p. 103495.

Singer, T. and C. Lamm, The social neuroscience of empathy. Ann N Y Acad Sci, 2009. 1156: p. 81-96.

Schoenberg, P.L.A., et al., Mapping complex mind states: EEG neural substrates of meditative unified compassionate awareness. Conscious Cogn, 2018. 57: p. 41-53.

T. van Berkhout, E. and J.M. Malouff, The efficacy of empathy training: A meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. J Couns Psychol, 2016. 63(1): p. 32-41.

More from Radhule B. Weininger M.D., Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today