We all have our ‘buttons’ that let us explode, once they are pressed. How can we remain calm, if we have never learned to put ourselves in somebody else’s position, if we do not succeed to admit another perspective in our thoughts, if we only talk of absoluteness, if we do not listen?

In 2010, the artist Marina Abramovic invited visitors to the MoMA in New York to sit opposite her and ‘just‘ look into her eyes – as long as they wish to. Many visitors started to weep instantaneously. The artist herself described this as a “moment where we cannot go anywhere else but into ourselves and many feelings just explode.”

This so-called ‘Eye Contact Experiment‘ has since been repeated many times and is considered to be the beginning of a contact. What happens, if we do away with words, if we allow a glimpse into our soul?

I simply love this exercise and, apart from tears and laughter, I have above all experienced this: People do get into contact with each other, move away from looking at outward appearance, gender, age or religion. They calm down, turn inwards and get in touch with themselves.

As for me, this is a most valuable exercise towards empathy.

We are living in a time where we are faced with so many different thoughts and opinions. We are confronted with all sorts of lifestyles owed to the extensive media network. Many times this happens in a distorted way and depending on the algorithm we start to have only one perception in our ‘bubble‘.

The result is that we do not (have to) deal with empathy, tolerance anymore or exercise the ability to have contact with ‘free spirits’.

Should we suddenly find ourselves in a discussion with representatives holding strong opinions, who may also find the right buttons to press, we feel our values threatened and react in accordance with an old pattern of the ‘fight or flight’ principle.

But we can also choose a different way. A way that puts empathy first. To be able to really listen without already formulating an answer in our heads. To see the feeling and experience and to try to relate to our interlocutor.

Being quick-witted, I find this, however, sometimes extremely difficult in exceptional situations (for example, in respect of racist remarks or contemptuous remarks against women).

Immediately, my brain formulates arguments and my ego aches to reprimand and win. In this situation I only hear the words and lose contact to my heart.

But it is empathy and compassion that turn us into human beings.

Right from birth we have so-called mirroring neurons. Babies learn to look at their environment with empathy. If we are startled, they are startled in the same way. If we laugh, they giggle heartily.

I had the privilege to meet two peace makers at a TEDX event in Berlin who have deeply touched me: Pastor James Wuye and Imam Muhammad Ashafa from Nigeria.
James and Ashafa used to be arch enemies. A Muslim militiaman, presumably one of Ashafa’s men, hacked off James‘ hand with a machete. Years of war claimed losses on both sides. It seemed to be a never-ending religious conflict. Acts of revenge resulted in subsequently following brutal attacks.

And now? They work together. Mutually, for peace. By setting up an impressive concept of mediation, they have not only achieved to reconcile their tribes but to set up internationally a peace program successfully. Their own history has a strong effect and generates hope for particularly difficult conflicts.

When I watched those two talking together on stage, I felt their words moving deep in my heart. Here we did not only see two people talking about empathy, charity, tolerance and solving conflicts. They had actually developed a proven concept.

Following their contribution, I immediately went up to them and talked to them. After having exchanged some e-mail correspondence, they supplied me with a program for peacemakers of their organization Interfaith Mediation Centre (IMC).

The program is based on ‘Reflective Structured Dialogue’. This turns above all around the fact that people meet as human beings, and it is not about the identity. Nationality, religion and other aspects do not play a role at all. Everyone talks as a human being from one heart to another.

In doing this, the talk follows a detailed and structured procedure.

Which voice wants to be heard? The preparations require a safe and protected frame, accompanied by a mediator, respect as a common base for the talks – listening, not recounting is the target. Specifically put questions are used to build up a relationship and confidence. Using this guided structure of talks enables people to come closer together and participate in sharing experience and feelings. Based on this, an understanding of the trauma is built up until the talk is guided to an end. The objective is to overcome pain – but everyone remains who they are.

Having this workbook at hand, I have carried out an empathy workshop. Since then I have used many of these aspects in my work and when in contact with people. Time and again, when I am holding talks about empathy and share experiences thereof, everyone remarks the same thing – there is a lack of exercise in doing this.

Why is it that these subjects are not taught? We all have our ‘buttons’ that let us explode, once they are pressed. How can we remain calm, if we have never learned to put ourselves in somebody else’s position, if we do not succeed to admit another perspective in our thoughts, if we only talk of absoluteness, if we do not listen?

We will probably have to try and try again to leave our ‘bubble‘ and to accept the process. And if we have the courage, we should enter into an exchange with them.