Three Exercises to Teach Your Team Empathy / by Gavin Lau

I recently lost my favorite pair of sunglasses and have been on the hunt for a new pair. The glasses were an older model that’s no longer made, so I’ve been reluctantly searching for a similar pair. So far I haven’t had much luck. In most stores, the salespeople were friendly and helpful, but that’s about it. Until I walked into a SunglassHut last weekend. The salesperson greeted me and asked me if I was looking for anything special. I told him, as I’d told every other salesperson, that I’d lost my favorite pair of sunnies, and was trying to find a new pair.

Instead of telling me about the current promotions or trying to guide me on what he thought would look best, he first told me he was sorry that I’d lost my favorite glasses. He was genuine, and that immediately gave him trust points in my book. He then went on to ask me what I liked about my old glasses. He asked me to describe them in detail. Then, he showed me around the store, pointing out other glasses that might make a suitable replacement. 

Although I didn’t find the perfect pair that day, I got the salesperson’s name, and vowed to find a pair from the company and order them directly from him. 

Empathy may feel like a buzzword these days, but its power is real. In just 10 minutes, an empathetic salesperson turned me into a loyal customer. 


It’s not just sales that benefit from emotionally intelligent employees. Teams benefit, too. One of the key factors for a successful team is the presence of empathy. Yet this skill isn’t always something that developers, designers, marketers, or managers are taught early on in their careers. 

So how do you help your team hone their empathetic skills?

Like any skill, empathy requires some practice. Growing up, my parents taught me that qualities like toughness and persistence were most important. They’d convinced me that if I could survive a challenging situation or keep trying, I’d eventually reach my goals. This mindset can make the idea of empathy in business something that sounds nice in theory, but challenging in practice for some employees.

Fortunately, there are many ways to help train teams learn to be more empathetic. In today’s article, we’ll cover three exercises teams can conduct to help foster a more empathetic environment. 


Exercise #1: Curious George or Georgina

We’ve all heard the saying, “curiosity killed the cat.” But is that true? A lot of times, especially when it comes to innovation, curiosity is what saves the day. It also happens to be a great way to help people develop empathy. 

A great way to get teams to flex their creative muscles is to encourage their curiosity about a stranger. One of the commonly-cited UX “commandments” states that we’re not identical to our users. That means that in order to better understand the user, UX professionals need to step outside themselves and forget what they know—at least for a little while. Understanding a stranger is a great way to get UX teams outside their comfort zones, and potentially inside the worlds of the people they’re really working for.

I recently tried this myself on a long flight. Normally, I’d keep to myself and avoid any contact with the person sitting next to me. But on this flight I stepped out of my comfort zone and made an attempt to learn more about the people sitting next to me. After introducing ourselves, I tried asking a few questions, and made a point of listening and asking more questions. I learned a lot about two total strangers, and had achieved rare insight into their lives that I wouldn’t have if I hadn’t been curious.

How to do it

When: This exercise can be really fun, but for some, it can feel like a bit of extra work. I’d recommend making it a monthly or quarterly exercise, in addition to one or both of the other exercises outlined in this article.

How: Assign each team member the task of finding out three pieces of information from a complete stranger by a pre-determined deadline. The pieces of information can change each time, or remain the same, but the answers must come from conversation. Simply peppering strangers with questions won’t achieve the intended effect. Teams need to engage and interact with someone they don’t know, and figure out how to elicit the responses required.

Some examples could be; Find out where a person grew up, their favorite food or restaurant, where they’d go on vacation if they could go anywhere for free. Your team can come up with the questions together, or they can be assigned by a manager. Once the deadline has been reached, gather the team to share what everyone had learned, and how the conversation impacted them.

Time needed: The first time this exercise is conducted teams will need about 10-15 minutes to understand the goal and timeline. After the first exercise, the questions and deadline can be sent via email. Once the team has their results, schedule a 30-60 minute session so the team can share their results and techniques. This is when the magic happens. When teams share their experiences and tactics, the entire team will learn what to do—and what not to do–to better engage with people they’re not familiar with.


Exercise #2: Weekly highs and lows

Part of what makes empathy such a powerful skill, especially for those in the UX field, is our ability to understand another’s situation. And a surprising way to train ourselves to do that, is by allowing our colleagues to be empathetic toward us, as well. 

The problem is that many of us have been conditioned to believe that work is work, and that we shouldn’t take things personally when we’re on the clock. Yet sometimes it can be helpful to sprinkle a little personal information around here and there to help develop empathy in teams.

We do this here on the marketing team at UserTesting. Every Monday we have a stand-up meeting in which each team member shares one high and one low from the past week, both in their personal and professional lives.

When I first started with the company, I have to admit, I was hesitant to share anything about myself. But after a few weeks, I found I was learning more about my colleagues and what was important to them—both in the office and at home. After about a month I started getting comfortable sharing my own stories and it wasn’t long after that that I felt our team growing stronger and more collaborative. 

As a result it became natural for me to wonder—if not ask outright—how my colleagues and customers were doing (and mean it). Because my colleagues and customers felt I truly cared about what was going on in their lives, they felt more comfortable in telling me exactly what they wanted or needed.

This exercise is a fast, easy way that any small to medium-sized team can quickly develop empathy. (This exercise can work for larger teams, however, I’d recommend breaking the team up into smaller groups to keep meetings short.)

How to do it

When: This exercise can be practised as often as needed, however, I suggest at least weekly. It helps develop a pattern, encouraging your team to think genuinely about their answers and creating a habit of the exercise.

How: Gather your team for a quick stand-up meeting, either at the beginning or end of each week. Ask each team member to share one personal high and low point of their week. (You can also add in professional highs and lows, too.) Allow a minute or two for discussion following each high and low, but try to keep it brief and balanced between each individual. 

Time needed: This exercise should be brief, but not rushed. Around 10-15 minutes should do the trick, depending on your team’s size.
Special considerations: Don’t be surprised if you have a few team members who are reluctant to share their personal stories at first. If someone doesn’t want to participate right away, that’s fine. Encourage them to share a professional story instead. Over time, they’ll most likely feel more comfortable and be willing to share with the rest of the team. 


Exercise #3: Active listening

In college I reluctantly enrolled in an entry-level acting class to fulfill my general education requirements. I wasn’t alone. Many of my fellow classmates were anxious about getting on stage. Our professor was well aware of this, however, and gave us a special assignment to help assuage, and develop empathy for our inevitable stage fright.

We were tasked with going out into public and discretely listening in on someone else’s conversation. The more awkward, the better. After observing our conversations, we were asked to present them to the group, describing the emotions we felt were expressed, including the points of view of everyone involved.

While this exercise may have been intended for a college-level acting course, it’s also a great way to introduce teams to empathy through active listening. Since true active listening requires the listener to “be completely present for the other person, to be able to go deep and develop empathy,” eavesdropping enables us to practice paying close attention and staying open minded, without the pressure of an actual interview. It works because individuals aren’t able to participate in the conversation, and thus they’re focused on only listening to and observing the conversation, creating a unique space for openly and actively listening.

How to do it

When: Since this exercise requires work outside the office, a less frequent timeline, like semi-annually or annually, will place less of a burden on teams. However, it can be run more frequently if a team is comfortable making the commitment.

How: Before sending a team out to eavesdrop on unsuspecting people, it’s important to first express the intent of this exercise, and remind teams that goal is not to invade anyone’s privacy, but rather to actively pick up on bits of conversations we’d hear in our normal daily lives. Individuals shouldn’t seek out conversations to listen in on, necessarily, but rather pay closer attention to the conversations around them, and actively listen to what they hear in the time they’d normally be within earshot. Typically, one week is sufficient time to allow teams to actively listen to at least one conversation. I suggest assigning this exercise on a Friday, and follow up with a 30-60 minute meeting the following Friday to share the insights the team has learned.


Next steps

Exercises like these are great ways to encourage teams to develop their empathy skills. But true empathy doesn’t start and stop with the occasional team project. Like a user-centered culture, affective empathy skills need to be part of a team’s everyday DNA.

To get started, it helps to lead by example. If you’re managing a team, try these exercises yourself, first. Then when you’re ready to ask your team to try them out, you’ll have your own experiences to share. When your team can see that you understand what you’re asking them to do they’ll be one step closer to walking in their user’s shoes.

Promoting a user-centered culture in an organization is a great way to underscore the importance of empathy in the workplace. Both for users and for colleagues. By encouraging UX teams to consider their fellow human beings as they conduct their daily work, a more inclusive, empathetic environment will emerge.