Skillful Conversations Grow Empathy

If you’ve lamented the apparent decline in civil society’s civility, the increase in bullying, bad behavior and violence towards one another ….and you want to know what you can do to make a positive difference, I have a suggestion: have more conversations. Real conversations. What I call Catalytic Conversation.

These are conversations that change people for the better. They are conversations in which the speakers feel genuinely seen and heard, understood and appreciated for being exactly who they are. They are the kinds of conversations that are absolutely critical for the development of the part of brain responsible for empathy – the prefrontal cortex. It’s functions are:

  • Body-regulation
  • Attuned communication with others
  • Emotional regulation
  • Response flexibility
  • Insight about yourself
  • Empathy
  • Intuition
  • Morality
  • Fear modulation

Research in the field of interpersonal neurobiology is demonstrating that a critical factor in the development of this part of the brain is the experience of feeling felt and known and loved by someone else. In other words, human interactions in which someone feels seen and heard, understood and appreciated actually develop the pre-fontal cortex!

Something else happens when a person feels felt and appreciated. The pre-frontal cortex stimulates the growth of Integrative Neurons. These are neurons that integrate the brain stem, the limbic system and the cortex. Integration is necessary for information to travel quickly and efficiently throughout the brain.

So the question is: how should we act in order to help others feel felt and understood and valued? What should we say to stimulate the development of the prefrontal cortex? How can we help others become more integrated individuals?

One way is to become skilled in Catalytic Conversations. This requires you to become a really great listener and a wise question asker.
The four components of a Catalytic Conversation are: Reflect, Empathize, Validate, Redirect.

Each component has a pace, particular phrasing, specific questions and a unique intention. They must be done in an order that follows the flow of information in and out of the brain. If you skip a step you will, more often than not, create disconnection between yourself and the speaker. This will usually cause an escalation in their emotional charge, which can then cause them to fight more or shut down and stonewall you.

Some of the mistakes that are all too commonly made are trying to be soothing, encouraging the other person to ‘be positive’, trying to empathize by telling a ‘me too’ story and then hijacking the conversation, reframing the other person’s problem the way you see it, offering advice, taking on the task of figuring out the solution or not holding good boundaries.

Sadly, most of us did not grow up with parents who knew how to converse (particularly about conflicting beliefs or desires) in a way that left us feeling really seen and heard, understood and appreciated for being who we were, or wanting what we wanted. Nor did they know how to effectively redirect us in space-time towards our own internal intelligence and creativity.

Fortunately, these skills can be learned at any age! Please ask me how.

Jolina Karen is a Behaviorist who guides men and women to be the best leaders, parents, partners and influencers they can be. Jolina combines Psychology, Physiology, Behavioral Kinesiology and The Demartini Method ™ to coach her clients into more satisfying relationships at work and home.

Learn more at or call 970-389-4513