Empathy Café Facilitates Student Communication

Empathy Café is an initiative of the Yeworkwha Belachew Center for Dialogue, designed to help students develop positive communication skills. The program was started last year, and grew out of the YBCD’s drop-in hours after staff members recognized the need for more programs that help people practice conflict resolution. 

Ombudsperson Kim Jackson Davidson spoke about the inception of this program.

“We felt like there was something missing as the core reason for people to walk to this part of campus [for drop-in hours] and show up,” Davidson said. “One of the other members of YBCD had in the past run workshops on nonviolent communication. So we hosted some workshops and out of that eventually decided to do Empathy Café.” 

A member of the YBCD facilitated the first few Empathy Café meetings last year before the role was taken on by College sophomore Rachel Wolchok during her first year at Oberlin.

“The way I look at it is that [the café is] for practicing empathy so that when you’re in situations where you disagree with someone or there’s a tense discourse, you can still exercise empathy and listen to them while also maintaining your own opinions,” Wolchok said. “It’s also really important to practice receiving empathy because empathy comes in so many different ways.”

The Empathy Café uses GROK cards to help students express themselves. There are two piles of cards: one that identifies feelings, and one that identifies values. One student will share a short story — which can be positive or negative — and pick a GROK card that names their emotions. The listeners will pick a value card that they feel represents what that person needs. These cards serve to help people identify their emotions and needs, practice active listening, and expand their emotional vocabulary.

College sophomore Maya Seckler frequently attends the Empathy Café. 

“It offers really cool insight to situations sometimes — if someone offers you a needs card that you would look at and be like, ‘What? That’s not what I need right now,’ it offers you an opportunity … to consider something you might not consider,” Seckler said. “And that can be revolutionary.” 

College first-year Eliza Young has also found the café to be a valuable opportunity for growth. 

“I think I’m gaining a lot of valuable skills in terms of how I conceptualize emotions and how I understand my emotions, the emotions of others, and different factors that may be at play in a given situation,” Young said. “It gives you words to be able to actually talk about how you’re feeling when it might be hard to pick different emotions out of thin air. So I think it just gives people more of a framework to think about their feelings and the feelings of others.”

The café can also be helpful for translating communication skills into other spaces. 

“Having the vocabulary and having the ability definitely has helped me in other areas as well,” said College first-year Nicole Chase. “It’s helpful in the classroom. I take a lot of politics classes, and I’ve noticed that a lot of times people speak in this very removed language and don’t realize that the things we’re talking about affect real people. Engaging in empathic dialogue … very much recenters both dialogue and thinking.”

The Empathy Café is expanding beyond the bounds of the dialogue center’s office in Lewis House and becoming available in other spaces on campus, starting with the Conservatory.

“Empathy is very important when you’re talking to your group members about music,” Wolchok said. “Going about [criticism] in a very respectful way is important because you’re making music together. It’s one sound that you’re producing, so hurting one person is hurting the entire group. … The Conservatory is a huge pressure cooker. I think it’s really important to provide that space for community, for communication purposes.”

Starting next week, Empathy Café will be held in Bibbins 232 from 7–8 p.m. on Wednesdays and at the Lewis House and Multifaith Center from 7–9 p.m. on Thursdays. Sessions are open to anyone who is interested.