Facilitating Expressed Empathy: Lessons Learned from Public Conversations

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Empathy, it seems, is having a moment. However—even as empathy’s conceptual popularity is on the rise—displays of empathy are on the decline, reflecting polarization trends in the United States. This project seeks to cultivate a culture of empathy in a time when we are particularly hopeless about the future of public conversations and democracy. I forward empathy as a practice for elevating deliberative and dialogic discourses by helping participants more fully consider other perspectives, asking: what deliberative and dialogic practices facilitate empathy? To answer this question, I articulate a rhetorical definition of empathy. Individuals practice what I term expressed empathy when they 1) express shared emotions with the other, 2) use language that acknowledges and imagines the other’s experience, and 3) articulate a recognition of difference between self and other. I analyze three distinct public conversations to answer this project’s central question, responding to calls for research on actual examples of deliberation and dialogue.

In the first chapter, I analyze audio tapes from four 1968 Citizens Interracial Committee community dialogues on education in San Diego public schools. I identify two distinct types of expressed empathy based on CIC participants’ communication, which I term second- and third-person expressed empathy. In the second chapter, I examine 75 transcripts of community conversations hosted by the Local Voices Network and New York Public Library from February 2019 to March 2020. These conversations illustrate the value of expressed empathy centered around similar experiences, as they also prompt questions about the degree of difference necessary for expressed empathy to meaningfully enhance the epistemic goals of dialogue. In the third chapter, I review videos from a 90-minute virtual dialogue I hosted in collaboration with the Dayton International Peace Museum during the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic. This case explores participant use of narrative kernels as resources for expressing empathy based on similar experiences, along with the kernels’ conforming influence. Taken together these cases represent a range of rhetorical practices along the deliberation-dialogue spectrum. From these cases, I articulate lessons learned about conversation formats, facilitation strategies, and communication practices for cultivating second-person expressed empathy in dialogue and deliberation settings.