Compassion and Empathy in Peace-making

One of the activ­i­ties I do with young peo­ple is called speed dat­ing. It’s an empa­thy build­ing exer­cise because, I have found, we actu­al­ly have to prac­tice talk­ing to each oth­er and real­ly lis­ten­ing. I ask the kids to form two cir­cles fac­ing each oth­er. Each pair gets a healthy chunk of time to address a ques­tion I pose. We talk about read­ing each other’s body lan­guage and facial expres­sions and ask­ing fol­low-up ques­tions that get the part­ner to light up. Then I move one of the cir­cles and with a new pair, we do it again. At the end of each ses­sion they ask when we can do it again. “You can do it any time,” I chal­lenge. “You are just talk­ing to each oth­er.” In our fast-paced liv­ing and screens, it helps when an adult carves out time for young peo­ple to lis­ten and con­nect with oth­ers to whom they may not oth­er­wise talk. Some­times peace­mak­ing looks as sim­ple as reach­ing out to the per­son next to you to ask an inter­est­ing question.

At home, I love using pic­ture books to build com­pas­sion and empa­thy with my kids. Books offer access to peo­ple all around the world who may think, act and live dif­fer­ent­ly than they do. Often, my kids make me stop on a page ear­ly on in the sto­ry so they can decide which char­ac­ter they’d like to be. As the sto­ry unfolds, my kids get to spend time in the shoes of anoth­er per­son or ani­mal, look­ing at the world with a new perspective.

Sofia: A Young, Empa­thet­ic and Com­pas­sion­ate Peacemaker

Sofia ValdezSofia Valdez, Future Prez is the sto­ry of a sec­ond grade girl who coura­geous­ly ven­tures to City Hall to request that a trash heap in her neigh­bor­hood be con­vert­ed into a park. She starts a peti­tion and ulti­mate­ly ral­lies the com­mu­ni­ty to trans­form their shared space. The sto­ry, writ­ten by Andrea Beaty, has a live­ly rhyming cadence, and David Robert’s pic­tures are enter­tain­ing and vivid.

I love read­ing this book to my kids in part because of the story’s com­pas­sion and empa­thy— two key char­ac­ter­is­tics of peace­mak­ing. Sofia’s abue­lo walks her to school until one day he trips on the trash heap and hurts his ankle. Shar­ing her grandfather’s pain moti­vates Sofie to see Mount Trash­more as a prob­lem to solve. What if we place the pain of our com­mu­ni­ty mem­bers at the heart of our work for a change? After get­ting sent all around City Hall— from the Mayor’s office to the Depart­ment of Cheese— a woman in the base­ment final­ly tells Sofia she is too young to build a new park. Refus­ing to take no for an answer, Sofia turns the tables and says, “If you were me, and if I was you, and he was your grand­pa, what would you do?” She is request­ing com­pas­sion and empa­thy. The woman paus­es, thinks, and ral­lies her col­leagues to hear Sofia out. The employ­ee takes a moment to stand in the shoes of Sofia. That moment changes the momen­tum and tra­jec­to­ry of the whole sto­ry. 

Dig­ging Deeper

Mark Yaconelli
Mark Yaconel­li

Mark Yaconel­li is an author, sto­ry­teller, retreat leader, com­mu­ni­ty activist, hus­band, and father. He is the founder and exec­u­tive direc­tor of The Hearth: Build­ing Com­mu­ni­ty One Sto­ry at a Time, a reg­is­tered non­prof­it that assists cities and ser­vice-based agen­cies in employ­ing per­son­al sto­ry­telling prac­tices to assist com­mu­ni­ties in deep­en­ing rela­tion­ships, bridg­ing divi­sions, and cel­e­brat­ing indi­vid­ual courage. One of Mark’s sto­ry­telling chal­lenges puts work­shop mem­bers in pairs. Each per­son tells a sto­ry about them­selves. After lis­ten­ing care­ful­ly, per­son A tells per­son B’s sto­ry but uses “I” as if it hap­pened to them. Try­ing on each other’s sto­ries is a pow­er­ful tool for build­ing empa­thy and com­pas­sion. It asks us to go out­side of our­selves for a moment and expe­ri­ence the world as the other.

Ellie and Caren: Dwelling with Com­pas­sion and Empathy

There is a dif­fer­ence between peace keep­ing and peace mak­ing. To be a peace mak­er, we must get com­fort­able with being present to pain and heartache with peo­ple with­out jump­ing in to fix, gloss over, or avoid. Peace­mak­ing requires us to sit with folks while they are griev­ing or angry. Dwelling with oth­ers is a place to grow our mus­cles of com­pas­sion and empa­thy.  This video gen­tly address­es in an ani­ma­tion empa­thy and com­pas­sion. What does it look for one per­son accom­pa­ny­ing anoth­er in his or her pain. So often we do not want a sit­u­a­tion fixed, we just want to feel seen and heard. We want to feel less alone. 

Ques­tions Toward Action

Who in your fam­i­ly, your work or com­mu­ni­ty would ben­e­fit from your com­pas­sion and empa­thy? Who in your life is will­ing to dwell with you when things get hard? What does that per­son do well to help you feel heard and accom­pa­nied? When was a time you sat in pain with some­one and lament­ed with them— either through words, tears, art, or sim­ple pres­ence? How would you artic­u­late the dif­fer­ence between peace keep­ing and peace mak­ing? Which is hard­er for you? 

For each Peace-olo­gy post, Caren and Ellie part­ner to learn and explore the mean­ing of peace by talk­ing and lis­ten­ing with each oth­er. If you’d like to share your ideas about peace, books, and chil­dren, please share your com­ments here, or vis­it our websites.

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David LaRochelle
3 years ago

Such an impor­tant thing to remem­ber: So often we do not want a sit­u­a­tion fixed, we just want to feel seen and heard.
Thank you for anoth­er impor­tant column.

Laura Purdie Salas
3 years ago

What a won­der­ful arti­cle. I love the cir­cles idea, and Mark’s retelling tool, and…all of it!