With the number of people returning to prison being two thirds of those released, I repeatedly wonder if the efforts we make to bring peace and safety to our communities are effective. Our current justice system is punitive, the idea being that people will change if punished for the wrongs they do. However, it seems that no matter how much people are punished, punishment does not seem to promote change.

If punishment doesn’t work, how can we support those who commit painful acts to change, thereby promoting peace and harmony in our communities?

Throughout my career as a trainer I have noticed that when I offer empathy to anyone in pain they “soften” and become less intense. But it wasn’t until I was working on my doctoral dissertation that addresses violence in men that I finally understood the conditions that promote accountability.

My research population was nine men who had done something they now regret. During my exploration I discovered that whether the situation was about romantic relationship, with children, at work, or with other family members, that what had promoted a violent response was a perception of being excluded from a relationship that the person viewed as very important to their lives. Since healthy connection is the foundation for psychological and physical health and safety, to be excluded is experienced as a threat to survival and a primitive mechanism is activated to literally fight for survival. No matter what had stimulated their reaction they all believed they were being banished, and they felt terror and shame as a result.

Each man telling his story then received empathy from me in an effort to discover the needs they were trying to meet at the time of their act. These empathy sessions lasted as long as a half hour and each man calmed and became more thoughtful throughout. Finally, unexpectedly, and for me deeply illuminating, when each man had the sense of being fully seen and heard for their entire humanity, each spontaneously stated something like, “now how do I make this right?”

I was deeply affected each time this was said because in the past when I made a mistake I would seek to be punished, and then feel resentful and angry rather than wanting to make amends. Now, I seek empathy and when as a result I can accept my full humanity, it is easy for me to want to make things right. I have also realized that empathy carries with it the implicit message, “you belong,” and contributes to a sense of belonging and inclusion. Belonging, then, inspires in us willingness to make amends with those who we may have harmed. And while this result originally was noticed in only nine men, it has now been repeated hundreds of times with our NVC students taking our classes in the Oregon prison system. As a result I have come to believe it is universal.

I imagine that if we transform our current punitive justice system into a “restorative” system, one that works to restore relationship with self and others, that very few people who leave prison will ever go back and our communities will much safer as a result. Empathy calms us, provides an experience of belonging, and serves to restore relationship. Increasing empathy in all parts of our communities can bring peace to our lives.


~Fred Sly






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