16 Sep The Empathy Toy: A Blindfolded Puzzle Game That Builds Soft Skills
Like many great things, the Empathy Toy entered my life in a most unexpected manner.
Back in 2015, my wife and I hosted our annual Halloween costume party. Among the guests were Shaggy, Velma and Scooby Doo, Super Mario and Princess Peach, a few ghosts, and Dobby the House Elf. [Be sure to read to the end to see my Mad Max War Boy costume)
But it was Andy Warhol that brought a powerful tool into my workshop facilitation business.
Jane Sanden, a friend of a friend, was dressed as the pop icon, sipping her wine from a Campbell’s tomato soup can. It was a great party with lots of conversation, plenty of laughs and of course a little magic. After I finished my informal performance, Jane and I started chatting.
“I work at a toy company,” she said.
Well, tell me more…
Not Your Ordinary Toy Company
Jane told me that she worked for Twenty One Toys, a Toronto-based toy company that is devoted to teaching 21st-century skills like empathy and failure to both adults and kids. One toy especially caught my interest: the Empathy Toy, a blindfolded puzzle game that can only be solved when players learn to understand each other.
The Empathy Toy is made up of precision cut wooden puzzle pieces that fit together in hundreds of different configurations and are used in a variety of different games. Each set is made up of 5 differently shaped pieces in two different colors.
As an amateur woodworker, I was smitten by the beautiful functionality and craftsmanship. But it’s not just a pretty thing. I immediately recognized the potential of this toy/tool as a tool that could me help my clients improve teamwork and communication.
After the party, the folks at Twenty One Toys invited me to their Empathy Toy facilitator training session so I could learn how this truly innovative tool helps improve communication, teamwork, and leadership.
That was back in 2015. Since then, I’ve integrated the Empathy Toy into many of my workshops to great results. It’s a versatile tool with so many applications. I’ve facilitated over 15 Empathy Toy sessions for my clients, helping them increase their empathy to build teamwork and communication, as well as to embrace change.
The Empathy Toy Experience
There is a multitude of ways that the game can be adapted, so I’ll describe the basic gameplay for a group of 6 people.
There are three roles in the game: Guide; Builder; and Observer (plus the facilitator.) The Guide and Builder are seated across from one another, each with their own matching set of wooden pieces.
Acting as the facilitator, I use the Guide’s pieces to build a constructed shape, then place it in front of the Guide. Then, the Guide must verbally instruct the Builder how to create the exact same configuration out of their own pieces.
But here’s where it gets interesting…
Both the Guide and Builder are blindfolded throughout the entire experience.
As they work together to complete the task, the Observers take notes on what worked well, what obstacles got in the way and how the Guide and Builder communicated.
Once they agree that they’ve created an exact match of the original construction, they remove their blindfolds and see how they did. After a round of applause, the real magic begins. We debrief.
We discuss what the experience was like for each player. It’s amazing to hear the different perspectives of the various roles. Guides and builders often start out confused by their lack of vision, yet adapt quickly. Well meaning Observers are often frustrated by the fact that they must not speak.
As we debrief the game play, we draw parallels between the game and real life situations. By asking the right questions, I help the participants apply their experience with the toy to help solve the workplace challenges they’re facing.
Even though I’m familiar with the research that shows the positive impact of fun on learning, I’m still struck by just how powerful the Empathy Toy is in helping participants glean lessons and strategies that they’ll apply back at work.
How The Empathy Toy Challenges Perceptions
Earlier this year, Twenty One Toys was running a workshop with one of Canada’s premier investment firms and they hired me to support them as a facilitator.
I arrived at the venue, a high rise in the financial district in Toronto, and stepped into the elevator. A couple of business suited executives stepped in and started talking with each other about the workshop they were going to, not knowing I was a facilitator.
“Did you read the invitation to this workshop?” said Business Guy Number 1.
“Yeah, it’s some BS about empathy, it’s going to be a total waste of time,” said Number 2.
I had a little chuckle.
“Actually, I think it’s going to be really cool,” I said. “I’m pretty sure you’ll enjoy it.”
He looked like a schoolboy caught doing something wrong. “Uh oh. Are you leading this workshop? Gosh, I’m sorry.”
I reassured him that many people have the exact same thoughts going into any sort of soft skills training. I get it – business people are busy. Time is at a premium, so taking a half day to focus on something that’s not directly billable can seem like a mistake. Doubly so when the session involves playing with toys!
At the end of the workshop, he made a point of coming to talk to me.
“You were right. That was really cool,” he told me. “I’m glad that we did this and I can see how it applies to our work.”
Toys are not only for kids
Using a toy in a business environment puts people off balance.
I love that. A big part of my job is to shake things up and challenge the status quo. I see it as my job to grab you by the brain and gently shake, so you can be open to new ways of thinking.
People tend to assume that toys are for kids and that playing is just about having fun. And there is some truth to that. Play IS fun. But it’s not just fun.
By the end of my sessions, participants realize the benefits of play, and that soft skills like empathy do impact their day to day business relationships.
This is something that scientists and educators have known for some time. Using games as a teaching mechanism increases engagement, motivation, and retention, according to numerous studies.
How the Empathy Toy can change your organization
The Empathy Toy can help bring members of your organization together by teaching them soft skills that are essential for the modern workplace.
The game is an extremely entertaining way to teach things like teamwork, problem solving and interpersonal skills, which according to psychologist Daniel Goleman, are three of the most sought after skills by Fortune 500 companies.
I’ve used the Empathy Toy with teams as small as 8 and as large as 100. Organizations of all sizes can benefit from this training, and it is especially important in teams that are going through big changes.
Faced with an impending change, many people feel they need to weather a storm. They think that change is something they need to ‘deal with.’ I’ve found the Empathy Toy to be a great tool to help shift their thinking from ‘dealing with change’ to ‘embracing change.’ It’s that mental shift that is so crucial and can do wonders for teams facing changes like mergers or new management.
Find out more
If you’d like to reach out to the awesome folks at Twenty One Toys, email them at and tell them I sent you. If you contact me first, I can send you my discount code that will get you 10% off of Toys and Toy Training!
If you’re interested in learning more about how the Empathy Toy can change your organization for the better, don’t hesitate to contact me to talk about a workshop at your next meeting or event.
I won’t be dressed in my War Boy costume, but I promise that learning about this game will create a lasting impact on your teams.