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Sticking Your Neck Out

Teaching New Yorkers to deploy ‘strategic empathy’ to get what they want. Can a jackal become a giraffe?

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New York’s latest California-bred self-improvement movement has a simple suggestion for you to get what you want: Stop being such a jackal. Think like a giraffe.

“Giraffes have the largest heart of any land mammal—28 pounds!” explains Thom Bond (pictured), director of the New York Council for Nonviolent Communication. “It’s a silent and powerful creature that’s a good listener. A giraffe will never interrupt you.” The sixteen attendees of a recent free introductory session in giraffism fidget and look nervously from side to side as he speaks. Later, it’s role-playing time: They “shift” between the self-centered “jackal” way of thinking—say, annoyance about having to see Mom’s boring new boyfriend over the holidays—to the “giraffe” way: considering his need for a connection. “I don’t see ‘jerks’ or ‘idiots’ anymore,” Bond says. “When someone is ‘rude,’ they’re so enmeshed in their needs at that time that they’re not thinking of anybody else. That happens in New York a lot. There’s a layer of isolation that’s kind of required.”

Bond’s 300 members pay about $100 a session for full-day workshops, some of which involve puppets and the donning of animal “ears” to enhance listening skills. (Also offered: weekly hour-long empathy phone calls.) Giraffe Language was founded 25 years ago by clinical psychologist Marshall Rosenberg, who gave up his practice to pursue peacemaking techniques (since endorsed by Deepak Chopra and used by the U.N.).

Back at the introductory workshop, Murray Schechter, a 43-year-old computer consultant, nearly derails an empathy session by asking how one could possibly empathize with a terrorist. Bond takes on the challenge, and Schechter is soon playing a suicide bomber whom Bond attempts to talk down. “You don’t fly a plane into a building unless you’re in a lot of pain,” Bond notes. “I think we can all use more empathy in our lives,” says Schechter. “But that won’t change the opinion of people who want to kill me for being an American.”

This is a bit advanced for their first session, so Bond moves to a subject that’s closer to home. “Anyone here know a control freak?” he asks. All the participants raise their hands.


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