Empathy Cafe

reflective listening in small breakout groups
Empathy circle

An empathy cafe is a facilitation method which allows each individual to speak and be heard for whatever is alive for them. Participants take turns to speak for an allocated time, and another participant reflects back what they have heard.

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What is an empathy cafe?

An empathy cafe is a facilitation method in which participants are broken into small groups (empathy circles), and take turns to speak within their group. Each speaker is allocated a set amount of time to speak.

When their turn begins, the speaker chooses an active listener, whose role it is to reflect back what they’ve heard the speaker express. The other participants also listen, but they do not have an active role, and may not intervene until they become either the listener or the speaker. When the speaker’s time is up, the listener takes on the role of speaker, and chooses a new active listener. This continues for the duration of the empathy cafe, with each participant getting several turns to speak. 

The empathy cafe may be themed, in which case each participant has the opportunity to deepen their knowledge, self-understanding, and appreciation of different viewpoints in relation to the theme. 

Empathy cafes may also be open-themed, in which case participants may talk about whatever feels alive to them at the time. This option can provide participants with emotional support, and provide a space to share, and be heard for, anything which is causing them emotional difficulty.

Another option is for an empathy cafe to be conflict or issue-based, and they can be used effectively in mediating disputes or as a step towards facilitating decision making.

There is no policing of content during an empathy cafe. It is often said that an empathy circle is ‘a brave space, not a safe space’ - participants are free to express whatever is on their mind, as long as they do not go over the allotted time, and facilitators do not intervene to prevent people from speaking a particular viewpoint, or to de-escalate if someone’s expression is becoming heated. However, a group may choose to set some of its own limitations (for example by making an agreement that racist comments will not be tolerated).

Often after several rounds the participants relax into the format and the conversation deepens. Participants may find that although they think they’ve already said everything they have to say on the topic in question, after a while they begin to discover new insights, and to discover things about themselves that they hadn’t been aware of.

Why host an empathy cafe?

Empathy cafes foster warmth and connection within groups, and provide the opportunity for work colleagues and group members to get to know and understand each other better. They are therefore good for team building.
Empathy cafes teach skills like active listening, and encourage individuals to develop understanding for different perspectives and personality types. While the process is simple, empathy cafes are designed to promote a culture of empathy, and for many people they are the first step on a lifelong journey of deep listening and understanding.
Empathy cafes can also be used as a mediation tool. They can help to de-escalate conflict, and are a useful means for people with different viewpoints (for instance different political beliefs) to better understand each other.
They can be used as part of a decision making process, and can be particularly useful when a collaborative decision needs to be made and there are strongly held positions which seem at odds with each other. Following an empathy cafe, participants are far more likely to be willing to adjust their position to take into account the needs and concerns of other parties to the decision, and empathy cafes can help people to move beyond the closed thinking of an ‘either/or’ decision to reach a new and innovative decision that everyone is happy with.

Empathy cafes were developed by Edwin Rutsch in the US, through his framework ‘building a culture of empathy’.
Edwin also founded the Empathy Tent which travels to events, including political rallies at which he hosts empathy circles to mediate between members of the political right and left.

Are empathy cafes all about sharing your emotions?

Not necessarily. Empathy cafes can be a space where people talk about their feelings, but they can equally provide a space for people to discuss ideas and concepts.
This is often dictated by the theme of the empathy cafe, with some themes leading themselves more to intellectual debates than to emotional sharing. Empathy cafes can often go in surprising directions, though. Anything is possible (and welcome).

What is reflective listening? How to reflect back what you’ve heard.

Reflective listening means repeating back the essence of what you’ve heard someone say. If it’s new to you and you find it hard, the easiest way to start is by repeating the actual words that the person said. As you get more confident, it will start to feel more natural to reflect the content in your own words, and to pick out what was most meaningful to the other person from what they said.
Avoid expressing your own opinions, giving advice, adding info to explain anything they didn’t know about, answering any questions they asked, or talking about what you were reminded of. You will have the opportunity to do any or all of those things when it’s your turn to speak. For now, just focus on repeating back, as accurately as you can, what the other person said.
It’s also important to avoid judgements when reflecting back what someone has said. If they tell you they slammed the door and stormed out of the office, try to stick to reflecting back what they actually said, rather than inserting your interpretations (that they were being rude, or mean, or controlling, or whatever).
Key things to listen for are the feelings and needs that are being expressed. Try to reflect the intensity of the emotion. If someone is expressing deep hurt, or anger, they will feel far more empathy and understanding if the active listener matches their energy by saying in a strong voice with emphasis: ‘you feel really hurt by that’ than if they repeat the same words in a monotone.

  • Appreciative / Community building
  • Awareness Raising
  • Collective Intelligence
  • Conflict resolution
  • Decision making
  • Empowerment
  • Group communication
  • Harvesting
  • Icebreaker
  • Idea generator
  • Problem Solving
  • Reflection
  • Social skills
Innovation Phases
  • 3 Fostering New Perspectives & Ways of Thinking
Train the Trainer seminars including Empathy Cafe can be found here: