The Empathy Toy builds trust, improves communication and is an amazing tool to help people think differently.

20 Nov How I went blind and increased my empathy

Much of my work is devoted to helping people see the world from another’s perspective. Through magic tricks and optical illusions, I help my audiences and workshop participants realize that their point of view is not the only valid perspective. So, when the good folks at 21 Toys invited me to learn more about their Empathy Toy, I jumped at the chance. I took part in a facilitator training session along with four other professional facilitators to learn how this truly innovative tool helps improve communication, teamwork and leadership.

The Empathy Toy is made up of precision cut wooden puzzle pieces that fit together in various configurations and are used in a variety of different games. Each set is made up of 5 pieces in two different colors.

Empathy Toy

There are many ways to play the game, but they all share an important twist – the players are blindfolded! In the basic gameplay, there are 3 ‘players’ plus the facilitator and other observers. The players include the ‘guide’, the ‘builder’ and the ‘observer’. The guide and builder are both blindfolded and the observers are sighted.

First, the facilitator connects the builder’s set of pieces into a structure by sliding the pieces together. Then the guide must blindly feel the pieces and instruct the builder how to construct the exact same configuration with their set of pieces. Each of the pieces are not only differently shaped, but also have raised bumps and differently textured ‘squishy bits’. These tiny details complicate both the description and building of the structures. All the while, the observers silently watch and take notes as the guide and builder work. Eventually, the configuration is completed and the truly important part of the game begins – the debrief.

Empathy Toy in action

Drew Dudley and Golnaz Golnaraghi observe as Ian Rosenfeldt works to duplicate the structure described by Hilda Pierorazio.

By asking thought-provoking questions, the facilitator helps the group use the game as an analogy for their real-world issues. Depending on the goals of the session, (for example, improving communication in a compartmentalized organization) the discussion uncovers previously hidden challenges and leads to new ways of thinking about the issue at hand.

This game shifts your brain into a different way of thinking. Deprived of the sense of sight, your other senses must become more attuned. Your verbal skills rise to new levels so you can communicate clearly.

It was a really fascinating experience that I’m still thinking about daily.  In the first round, I was one of the ‘observers’.  Not surprisingly, there was a lot of miscommunication between the guide and the builder.  I found it rather difficult to keep my mouth shut and just observe.  I had a strong urge to blurt out suggestions or just go over and physically help the builder complete the task.  In retrospect, I realize that if I had jumped in, they would have finished quicker but the underlying miscommunication would have continued.

Deprived of sight, I work to describe the Empathy Toy configuration to the builders.

Deprived of sight, I work to describe the Empathy Toy configuration to the builders.

In the second round of ‘play’, I took the role of the guide.  I found that it was critically important to not only communicate clearly, but to continually ask the builder to confirm that they actually understood what I was communicating.  Simply asking “do you understand?” is not enough.  Sure, they might think they understand, but their understanding may be different than what I was actually trying to get across.  It was a good reminder that “do you understand?” is one of most useless (and even counterproductive) things you can say.  It’s far more productive to say, “please explain how you understand what I said.”

I see this type of miscommunication happen in my clients’ organizations all the time.  Part of the problem is that language is so nuanced, there are many interpretations of any given communication.  We can easily think we have a shared understanding of a situation (goal, process, etc) even when our understandings are wildly different.

Empathy Toy in Dan's hand

The tactile qualities of the Empathy Toy are a joy to work with.

I love the Empathy Toy. I love it because it makes you think differently. And I love it because it is so versatile. It can be used to build skill in teamwork, collaboration, innovation, leadership, problem solving, and more. What I love most about this game is that the central driving force is empathy. Learning to be empathic – to really understand what it’s like in someone else’s ‘shoes’ – is a critical skill in the 21st century.

I’m looking forward to using this eye-opening blindfolded game in my future workshops.  If this powerfully unorthodox approach appeals to you, contact me and we can create a session that will tackle your specific challenges.

We all had an amazing time shifting our perspectives and learning how to use the Empathy Toy in our facilitations.

We all had an amazing time shifting our perspectives and learning how to use the Empathy Toy in our facilitations.

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