Realizing Empathy as Part of Co-Intelligence

Few people – including myself until recently – have realized how important empathy is to co-intelligence. Here I focus on four important connectors between empathy and co-intelligence – being heard, random selection, effective deep understanding, and resonant intelligence – that are fundamental to the creation of a truly wise democracy.

Late in March I was told that I would be given the first Credere award for promoting “empathic individualism”.

At first this struck me as odd.  While I have written about empathy a number of times, it has certainly not been my central focus. Furthermore, I know a number of colleagues for whom empathy IS their focus – and some of them are doing excellent work worthy of such an award.  (I think of Miki Kashtan, in particular.)

Although I suggested this to the person responsible for the award, he insisted that he wanted me as their first recipient.  As we talked about this and about what I might say in the speech he wanted me to give in October when I formally received the award, I had some interesting realizations I want to share with you about empathy and co-intelligence.


The first thing that comes to my mind when I think of empathy is the practice of active reflective listening.  This practice is honed to a fine “art of the heart” in approaches like Nonviolent Communication and Dynamic Facilitation.  It involves reflecting back to a speaker the meaning and feelings of what they are saying – or trying to say – often while checking “This is what I’m hearing. Am I getting it right?” and continuing the process until the speaker agrees that the listener has, indeed, “gotten it”.  The listener makes it clear that he or she really wants to know.  They are not simply parroting the speaker’s words or trying to wrap things up and move on.

A person who is listened to in this way usually ends up feeling quite deeply heard.  The more important what they are saying seems to them, the more profoundly this “feeling fully heard” impacts their psyche.  I can personally attest to the rare, precious, and powerful quality of this experience.  Even if the listener doesn’t agree with the speaker, the speaker nevertheless feels deeply companioned in their most personal world, sometimes for the very first time.  They feel the listener GETS and appreciates them with no judgment or resistance.

This kind of empathy enriches the speaker’s life energy and mitigates whatever judgment and separation they may have been feeling.  People who have been heard in this way open up and can better hear what others are saying.  They also open up to shifts in their own perspective, and to feeling things in new and deeper ways.  They don’t have to protect themselves or attack others in order to feel safe and valued.

This opens the door to transformation.  New options can arise and be seriously considered.  New levels of caring for others begin to shape which options are chosen and why.  In this way empathy from one person can breed empathy in others towards everyone else with expanding ripples of impact on how we live our lives together.

The idea that this phenomenon could become the norm in our political life is a big part of what drives my exploration of “wise democracy”.  The impact of ANY kind of authentic listening to “constituents” or “the other side” or “each other” will always be significant, with reflective listening being particularly potent.  When I imagine us addressing all our public issues with processes that use this kind of reflective listening, I see all sorts of wise options becoming much more possible than they were before.

But the role of empathy in co-intelligence doesn’t stop at reflective listening….


In my book Empowering Public Wisdom I explore the idea – proposed by a number of other political thinkers – of randomly selecting a citizen legislature.  As with the randomly selected citizen deliberative councils I’ve often written about, the people in such a decision-making body would be just like you and me, in all our diversity.  This is significant for the functioning of empathy.

Right now our legislatures are largely made up of very rich professional politicians.  As members of the elite – along with many pundits who shape our political discourse and consciousness – most representatives tend to have little experience with life as it is lived by the rest of us.  We are factors in their political calculations and sometimes even in their caring.  But so many of the conditions and constraints they live in are remarkably different from those faced by ordinary citizens.

So legislators in a citizens legislature would naturally think and respond much like we as a whole people think and respond.  In a legislature made up of 500 randomly selected citizens, members of “The 1%” would amount to approximately five people, instead of a majority, as is currently the case with America’s House and Senate – and with many other national legislatures and parliaments.

The chances are excellent that a randomly selected legislated body would “get” and “empathize with” the perspectives, values, and needs of the majority of the population and seek to incorporate those understandings into the policies they crafted.  Thus we would get more empathic policy-making.

But there’s more….


Once there is empathy, we face the challenge of acting effectively on that special kind of understanding and caring.  What actually will make a difference in the lives of the people with whom we are empathizing?

Here is where information and knowledge – and wisdom – come in.  Just as certain information and knowledge can be used to get what we want in self-interested ways, so information and knowledge can be used to achieve what is good for all of us.  Sometimes the same knowledge can serve both purposes.  Sometimes we need deeper and broader understanding to serve all of us over the long term.

Specialized understandings from science, from ethics, from systems thinking – for example – can be invaluable in stretching our perspective so we can better serve all of us over the long term.  But so can simply hearing each other well. We come to political conversations with diverse views, experiences, and information.  This diversity is a treasure if it is used well – that is, if we can stimulate each other and integrate all our gifts into a bigger picture that includes and serves us all.  Some forms of dialogue and deliberation are better at this than others.

Our aim is to use whatever sources will give us a big enough picture of what’s going on and what’s possible so that we can use our caring to actually make the right kind of difference in people’s lives and in our world.  If we look to create too narrow a benefit over too narrow a time period within too narrow a perspective, we will almost certainly end up harming people and things that we care about.  Pursuing the big picture helps us apply our empathy wisely.

And (always) there’s even more….


The ability to generate and experience empathy evokes in a group what I’ve called “resonant intelligence”.

In an essay on my site about resonant intelligence, I write

somewhere deep inside us, our sense of goodness, our connection to spirit, and our natural earth consciousness are all blended together into a seamless sense of right relationship and healthy, wholesome behavior.  Sometimes this common core is buried, and sometimes it is very much alive and vivid in our consciousness.  The more we are in touch with the kinship realities that make it up–in ourselves and each other–the more resonance becomes possible, allowing these deep forms of intelligence to resonate from one person to another and from one form of life to another.

This is ‘co-resonant wisdom’–the wisdom that is evoked in one person, group or other living being by someone else’s powerful love, integrity, inquiry, suffering, empathy or other pure invitation to common humanity or life.  Resonant intelligence, or the ability to evoke co-resonant wisdom in others, is what made Gandhi and King so effective.  Our core commons–our shared patterns of human, biological, and spiritual kinship–can, if we attend to them, point us towards connection, towards healing, towards life, towards making our actions and our solutions wiser.  The fact that we can evoke these things in one another is remarkably empowering.

This is the phenomenon of being attuned to one another – partly through our shared biological evolution (and thus the way we’re made), partly through our individual development and practices, and partly through the powers of good group process.  This attunement can open us up – personally and as groups – to all sorts of guidance from beyond ourselves.  It puts us in an empathic state from which we can respond in more naturally life-affirming ways.

So it turns out that empathy is very much a part of co-intelligence.  We can use all these empathic phenomena to make to make our lives more peaceful and productive and our democracies wiser.  These are all ways in which my work reflects and embodies empathy.  It seems empathy is more fundamental to co-intelligence than even I had realized.

I hope it is useful for you.


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