2020-01-13 Rosa


A group of us met in a home in Berkeley, California for a Potluck and a private workshop facilitated by Rosa Zubizarreta. Rosa presented her workshop "OMAH" (Opening Minds and Hearts). Skill-building for Heart-Opening Conversations includes Empathy Circles and Dynamic Facilitation.

Attending were some members of the Empathy Tent Team, local friends of Rosa's and members of the Mindful PeaceBuilding Sangha. There were 14 participants.

Evening Outline

  1. Potluck

  2. Rosa Introducing her work

  3. Four Empathy circles - Topic: What keeps you going in these hard times?

  4. Empathy Circle Debrief

  5. Dynamic Facilitation Overview.

Some Video Of the Workshop

View On YouTube or On Facebook

Google Document

Open Shared Google Document to add material or give feedback.

Shared Debrief of Empathy Circle Experience (3.0)

These various conversational offerings have been grouped into categories. Everything in regular type was actually said during our time together: what is italics, including subheadings, was added afterward. Given that the various ideas were later clustered into themes, the order below does not fully reflect the actual conversational flow as seen in the videotape.

A. Appreciations

1. Appreciated the opportunity to start with a positive story.

2. Appreciated people’s willingness to try something new.

3. Appreciated giving time for writing or reflecting quietly before speaking.

4. Appreciated the question: “what keeps you going in challenging times?”

B. Benefits of the practice

1. This practice offers the opportunity to get to know one other fairly quickly. Connecting is something we all long for.

2. Some of us feel that being listened to, helps us get clearer about our own thoughts.

3. Sometimes even if someone reflects exactly what we said, we might realize that’s actually not what we meant. So that helps us to adjust our own thinking, get clearer.

4. Some of us enjoyed the opportunity to explore our own inner experience, in a way we don’t often have a chance to do.

C. Observing our inner experience

1. Some of us felt like we were just beginning to touch something inside us in the small circle, something that wants to be touched.

2. There can be a vulnerability involved in “stepping out” as a speaker; some of us are noticing our comfortableness with doing so.

D. The challenge of “Interrupting” in order to reflect

1. As a listener, it can be difficult to find a mindful way to interrupt a speaker… to cue them, that we’d like them to pause, so we can reflect what we’ve heard so far.

2. Some of us feel that as a speaker, we have a responsibility to the listener, to be efficient speakers… also to pause periodically and check in with them.

3. Another perspective is that as a speaker, some of us want to be free to explore what is emerging inside of us, without worrying about the listener…we would prefer for the listener to initiate a pause when they experience a need for one.

E. Dynamics of speaking and listening

1. Some of us are being “efficient” as a speaker, because we are afraid that our listener will stop listening and go away if we go on for too long.

2. Some of us learned to “disappear” as children, and not be noticed. So we may be holding back as a speaker, based on this habit pattern.

3. As a listener, we might choose to “break the rules” at times, and give someone more time, because we sense that this is something they need.

4. There is a difference when we make a choice to “stand aside”, and when we are doing so habitually out of conditioned behavior.

F. Gender dynamics

1. People want an audience; in our culture, men especially do. There are gender dynamics at work here.

2. At the same time, as women, we need to take responsibility when we give our attention to men, in a more unilateral way. Sometimes we don’t notice this pattern till afterward.

G. “Free” listening and “forced” listening

1. Some of us don’t like debates, in part because of the “forced listening” that is involved.

2. There is a sense of “willingness” involved in really listening… we are willing ourselves to hear, making a commitment to do so.

3. At the same time, sometimes the structure we are in (and which we have agreed to be in)“forces” us to listen – and this can be a good thing, as we end up learning things we would not have learned, otherwise.

H. More on “really listening”

1. As a listener, it is important to be present to the energy beneath the words.

2. When we are listening, there can be an active “putting forward” of our listening presence… something of ourselves, is going forward… not our ideas, but our presence.

3. The importance of someone really seeking to understand, not just “saying back”.

4. The power of “holy curiosity”; being interested in the gift that this person is bringing.

I. Radicalized dynamics

1. How can we apply this work (Empathy Circles) to racial equity work?

2. While this work may be useful, it may be that more is needed, too.

3. Racialized dynamics can make it riskier to be vulnerable.

4. There is a difference between equality and equity.

J. Doing this work in high-conflict zones

1. One recommendation is for “one-down” persons to be listened to first, to counterbalance the historical privilege of the “one-up” people.

2. Given the different identities we have, sometimes it can be hard to figure out, “who should be listened to first”.

3. Another way is to have clear guidelines: “if you are willing to listen, you will be heard.”

4. Example of neo-Nazi person listening to a Jewish person, and then needing to “reflect back” what the Jewish person said… while being witnessed, by others in the circle.

5. In this case, the neo-Nazi person had been listened to earlier -- and was then following through by listening to someone else – in this case, listening to a Jewish person.

6. There may not be a contradiction between the recommendation in #1 and the example shared in #4 and #5, since people with neo-Nazi ideologies often perceive themselves to be “one-down” -- even though that may not be objectively true. From that perspective, it could make sense for them to be listened to first, in the context of an Empathy Circle.

There is a lot more that could be explored here… we clearly did not finish the conversation… only stopped because of time.

Some of the statements in this last section above, did not make it onto the charts (simply due to the facilitator’s flagging energy :-). That last bit of conversation is also not on the recording, as the battery ran out. Nonetheless, it is being included in the notes as it was a significant part of our conversation. And, there is always an invitation to participants, to add anything they remember from the meeting, that may be missing in the notes.

Reflections on the Dynamic Facilitation process

1. In the more “formal” form of Dynamic Facilitation, we work with at least three charts:

  1. Solutions,

  2. Concerns (about the Solutions), and

  3. Data/Perspectives.

2. The purpose of welcoming Solutions throughout the process, is to continually appreciate and value participants’ creative efforts.

3. We re-frame any criticisms as Concerns that arise out of caring about an effective outcome.

4. The facilitator’s role is to reflect back and record each participant’s contributions. It also includes making room for apparently conflicting perspectives, by inviting participants to not speak directly to one another, but toward the facilitator instead, who records and reflects each perspective. (This is different than in Restorative Circles.)

5. During or after the conversation, we can create a fourth chart, the Problem-Statements chart, which tracks the flow of the conversation. It consists of various questions in the form of,

  • “How can we … ?” These can also be worded as

  • “How might we…”

  • “How could we…”

  • etc.

Looking at the conversation we had on Monday night through the lens of Dynamic Facilitation, what follows is a draft overview or summary, that I created by looking at the notes, and coming up with some “draft problem statements” for the fourth chart.

What follows could be offered to the group for their feedback at the beginning of a second session, in conjunction with the notes on page 1 and 2.

One of the first questions we explored on Monday evening (without having stated it explicitly) could be phrased as follows:

“How can we streamline the process of creating pauses when doing Empathy Circles so that the listener can reflect back?”

[We then invite any feedback or modifications to the wording of this question.] One “solution” that was offered during our first conversation, was for the speaker to take more responsibility for creating pauses, and for checking in with the listener. Another “solution” was to place the responsibility on the listener, so the speaker could focus more fully on their own process. These are just two initial possibilities (see section D of the notes, “The challenge of interrupting in order to reflect”); given more time, we could explore this question in greater depth.

Another question that came up implicitly in our conversation was,

“How might we deal with gender imbalances in the conversations we have as part of daily life?”

[We would again check for agreement or modification on the wording of this question.] This, too, is a question that we only explored briefly (see section F of the notes, “Gender Dynamics”) and that we could continue to explore in greater depth.

A third question that emerged, this one explicitly, was

“How can we apply Empathy Circles process, to racial equity work?”

This question came up a few times, including toward the end of our session. (See section I of the notes, “Racialized Dynamics”; the items in that section could be seen as context and data.)

At the same time, the above inquiry implicitly gave rise to a related question, one that is a bit more generalized:

“How might we work effectively with a listening-based turn-taking process, in situations where there has been significant historical harm?”

[Check wording of question with group.] One proposed solution was for the “one-down” participants to speak first. Another proposed solution was to focus instead on having clear guidelines, along the lines of “if you want to be heard, you will also need to listen to others”.

We then heard an example from a previous Empathy Tent event, which had been structured according to this second approach. A neo-Nazi (Identitarian) person had already taken a speaking turn, was now the listener, and was reflecting back what a Jewish person was saying.

This example sparked a third perspective in this conversation: those who subjectively feel more vulnerable, may need to be listened to first – even when this subjective vulnerability may not coincide with what others see as objectively vulnerable. (See section J of the notes, “Doing this work in high-conflict zones”.)

In sum then --

in Dynamic Facilitation, during a second session, we’d begin by reviewing the notes the first session, inviting participants to add or modify the notes as needed. If the facilitator has created a summary of the notes afterward, as I did above by tracking the evolving “problem statement” questions, we would share also that with the group at the beginning of the second session, and modify it based on their input.

This would be followed by an open invitation to the group, to continue deepening our shared inquiry.

Additional reflections on the Empathy Circle Process

(from a subsequent email conversation between Lyn and Rosa)

1. There are different ways of hosting the Empathy Circle process. Anyone is welcome to experiment and see what works for them. Please share the learnings afterward!

2. For the small practice groups, I (Rosa) usually prefer groups of 3 or 4 participants, especially in an intro. However, this can be done in slightly larger groups, 5 or 6 participants.

3. This was a learning experience for me as a facilitator, as I’ve not formed affinity groups before when facilitating a learning group on Empathy Circles. When I’ve done this work in the Berkshires, the participants have usually been white women, with only occasionally a few men.

4. Thank you all for some useful learning! I value affinity groups, and have worked with them in other contexts. And, from Monday evening’s experience, I’ve learned that it can be helpful to offer affinity groups when doing Empathy Circles, as a way to create greater emotional safety.

5. Afterward, Lyn asked about the implicit or explicit dynamics of decision-making power dynamics and authority. Yes, when leading a relatively brief learning event whose focus is not collective decision-making, I (Rosa) am working under the implicit process agreement that as facilitator, I am being entrusted with final decision-making authority after consulting/input from group.

6. At the same time, I’m realizing that it could be helpful to make this implicit process agreement more explicit. As I see it, ultimately it is the group, as well as the host of the event, who are the ones “authorizing” me to lead. The value of making these implicit agreements more explicit, is another learning from this workshop. Thank you, Lyn!


  1. Bruce’s written reflections on the extended conversation that took place during a three-day workshop, on systemic issues within spiritual and personal growth communities, is here: http://www.serviceoflife.info/focusing/parallel1.html

  2. Dynamic Facilitation: For anyone interested in more info about Dynamic Facilitation, there are free resources available on my website: DiaPraxis.com, on this page.

  3. Empathy Circles: I also have several links to Edwin’s work, as well as notes on previous experiences with Empathy Circles, on this page: Empathy Circles: resources and learnings

  4. Edwin’s website at CultureOfEmpathy.com