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A personal message creates an emotional response in the audience, allowing them to identify with the speaker.

Teach Empathy to Build Teamwork

Because trust falls are crap

Many of us have had the experience of participating in team- or trust-building exercises. Maybe we were at a corporate retreat, in some kind of college orientation, or at a youth summer camp. If your experiences are like mine, then you and your colleagues have run the obstacle courses, built the spaghetti towers, and played some version of “two truths and a lie” (the worst), or done the infamous trust fall.

All of which has never, in my experience, amounted to anything.

Although these games might give us a temporary good feeling about our coworkers, they don’t result in any new knowledge of one another that translates into our personal or professional lives. There are conditions in which playing together can create long-lasting personal bonds, but the types of children’s games that many corporate ice breakers employ aren’t it.

Remember that time that you went to the beach with your parents when you were a little kid and you saw those other kids building sand castles and your Mom told you to go over there to ask if you could play and so you did that and you had such a great time? What were the names of those kids?
Yeah, I don’t remember, either.

There are lots of intimate and vulnerable things people can do with one another that don’t build teams or trust. Just skim the heartbroken lovelorn articles on Medium bemoaning the horrible state of power struggle that is many a romantic relationship to realize that physical intimacy is an unreliable way to build trust and teamwork.

So what does?

I wrote a little bit about this in Teaching Teamwork = Tacit Knowledge, where I cited an article from scholars of knowledge management who claim that collective improvisation is the highest form of teamwork, because to do that teammates have to have such deep knowledge of one another that they no longer have to think about what one another will do. They just know.

That kind of knowledge only comes from sharing experiences with one another. It’s the kind of mindshare that Navy SEAL teams achieve (Stealing Fire, Kotler & Wheal). It’s what was absent from military operations in Iraq until General McCrystal implemented the kinds of changes he documented in Team of Teams. What McCrystal discovered is the same thing that we’ve know for years… for teams to function well, they somehow have to get to know each other on some deeper level.

Except that no one really describes what that deeper level is. They just know that it takes hundreds of hours (at least) to build. It’s very expensive, and even those who finally achieve it don’t know the word for it.

That word is empathy.

Empathy is what allows us to understand the world the way others’ understand it, to feel things the way that others feel it, and even behave in the world the way that others behave. It’s not the same as love or affection. It doesn’t require us to even like the people whom we can empathize with. But once we’ve got it, our work with them gets so much easier (and often we find out that we like them fine).

There are three kinds of empathy.

Cognitive empathy is being able to think what others are thinking. Affective empathy is being able to feel the emotions (and motivations) that others feel. And conative empathy is when you find yourself doing what others do.

It’s the last one that is most confusing for people. What they don’t realize is that, as human beings, part of our brains is hard-wired for imitation. Even as babies, we learn by watching and imitating role models.

Yawn contagion is a good example of conative empathy. When someone near you yawns, you may have an instinctive desire to yawn, too. You might even be yawning before you are even aware that you’re doing it!

To improve teamwork, you have to improve these three kinds of empathy.

The crappy team building exercises might help with that, but they’re unreliable. What I’ve found works better in my classes are some improvisational theater exercises, because the key to improvisational theater is making your partner look good.

Boyd Branch (not pictured) and I met with famous director and actor Alan Alda (right) about teaching improvisation to scientists and engineers, to help them understand and connect with their audiences.

Improv has enjoyed a sudden increase in popularity on college campuses since the famous actor Alan Alda toured the nation delivering lectures on his experiences teaching improv to scientists as a way to help them communicate their science. It turns out that just a little coaching about how to make communication more personal can result in a big improvement in the audience experience.

Boyd Branch and I now use some classic improvisational theater exercises for teaching empathy to my engineering students. While we will do role playing and some scene work, we begin with exercises intended to build empathy. . These are the exercises that we use, with some discussion prompts that might help the participants make sense of them after the fact.

Warm up

Improvisational theater is an unusual pedagogical approach for most engineering students, and it helps to get them up out of their seats for something that will warm up their bodies and brains, and transition their expectations for the usual process of writing equations in their notebooks. We typically push all the desk chairs to the edges of the room and instruct the students to walk around the room.

To add a little physical science, and some physicality, we sometimes tell the students to pretend they are molecules of gas. To do that, they must walk like Newtonian particles — straight until they bounce off something else (like a wall, a chair, or another student). They must be cautioned to bounce gently, of course! Nevertheless, the contact they make with each other and the edges of the work space helps them overcome the invisible personal space bubbles that we typically use to insulate ourselves from others.

The advantages of the gas bubble analog are:

  1. We control the speed of the walking by announcing “temperature” changes. The hotter the temperature, the faster the students are expected to move! Not all students move at the same pace. Just like real gas molecules, student velocity is distributed around a mean, with some faster than others, and
  2. Instructing the students to “heat up” or “cool down” helps them learn how to follow our instructions and reminds them of when they may have played Simon Says! as kids — but without winners and losers. We even go to absolute zero, which requires the students to “freeze” still.

A variation of the gas molecule warm up requires the students to form molecular chains. When the Instructor shouts a number or the name of molecule, the students must spontaneously arrange themselves into polymer chains by clasping hands with their classmates. For example, water is a central oxygen molecule “holding hands” with two hydrogen atoms. Alternatively, methane is one central carbon atom, bound to four hydrogens, so it requires five students. If the chemistry is too much for your audience, then you can just shout out a number and require the students to organize into groups of that size. In this molecular variation, it’s possible to make a competition out of it by eliminating those odd students out (who fail to form groups of the right size). It’s like musical chairs.

It’s also helpful to have a warm up discussion to go with the warmup exercises. After the warm up, gather in a standing circle so that everyone in the room can make eye contact with everyone else. Ask these questions, which are based on the three forms of empathy, and the necessity of paying attention to others:

What did you do?

What did you feel?

What did you think?

Many engineering students have difficulty with the “feeling” prompt. They might say, “Well, I though I was going to fall over!” but we have to remind them that thoughts are not feelings, and that we’re asking for feelings in this prompt. Sometimes we simplify it for them into a multiple choice question in which they can pick any (or combination) of glad, mad, sad, or afraid. After the student get the hang of it, more complex emotions usually come up.

Follow the Leader

This game introduces partner work, so it requires the students to pair off. One student will start as the leader, with the other as the follower. They are not permitted to talk, although they will probably find it hard to prevent laughter. The leader places their palm up in front of their should, facing the follower, who must place their nose two or three inches from the open palm of the leader. When the instructor says “Go!” the leaders may move about the room, and the followers must maintain the same distance between their nose and the leader’s palm at all times.

Leaders come to realize that they literally hold the safety of their followers in the palms of their hands. There is typically some bumping and lots of changes in direction and lots of fun at first. Let the exercise go longer for people to get over their initial surprises and allow the partners to get a sense of how they each move. What you may find is that the followers gain a sense of being able to make suggestions to their leaders, even without words or gestures. The leaders and followers sometimes develop what feels like a telepathic relationship with one another!

Use the same discussion prompts asking what students did, felt, and thought. Then switch partners and roles so that students have the opportunity to experience the exercise both as a leader and a follower, and with two different classmates. And prompt discussion in the same way.

Circle Clap

This game use the same standing circle used for discussion. As Instructor, you demonstrate how to play the game to everyone in the circle.

Turn to your left and ask the student on your side to turn and face you. Explain, “I’m going to clap my hands together, right here in front of my belly, like this <clap>. Now, you clap your hands just like that <clap>.

“Great! Now the way we play is, our goal to for us both to be clapping our own hands at the exact same time. The rest of the class can judge whether we did it right or not, and if we did, you will turn to your left and do the same thing with your new partner.

“When the two of you clap your own hands at exactly the same time, then you will be done, and your new partner will turn to their left and play with a new partner.

“Once we get the hang of it, we’ll see how many times we can go around the whole circle, getting it right with just one clap!”

Students typically will try timing mechanisms like counting down 3–2–1 while paying close attention to their partner’s hands. All of which is usually futile. What works is when the entire class falls into a rhythm so steady that they could do the clap game with their eyes closed. A steady, clap, clap, clap beat usually solves the problem!

Discuss. (By now the students know the prompts). This time, guide the discussion to examination of the what worked well and what didn’t. Typically, less communication is more in the Clap Game, because students don’t have to be told when to clap… they just know.

Improv Count

This game works best when you break into two circles of at least 6 students each. The goal of the game is to count out loud to a number twice as high as the number of students in the group, in sequence. The catch is that students may not speak anything but numbers. They may not point. They may not attempt to communicate, except by saying the numbers, in order.

Only one student may speak at a time, and once a student speaks, they must remain silent until a new student speaks. In this manner, one student will begin the game by counting out loud “One,” and then wait for another student to count out loud, “Two.” The first student may now count out loud, “Three,” or wait for another student to count “Three,” out loud. Whenever two people speak at once, that round ends and an new one must commence back at “One” until the students are able to get all the way up to their counting goal, one-by-one, working together without communicating.

When two or more circles of students are together, it’s fun to make it a race by recognizing the student circle that reaches their goal first!

The discussion prompts remain the same, but your guidance should ask the student to go into a deeper examination of how they solved the problem of coordination, in the absence of explicit communication? Typically, this exercise teaches students to pay close attention to others to get a better sense of the subtle communication cues they give off that they couldn’t hide no matter how hard they try.


If time allows, attempt a round of Blurt! It this is the most impressive and difficult game of all. All of the students stand in a circle, just as with the Circle Clap game, with the first two students turned to face each other.

These students count down, 3–2–1 together and then “blurt” out whatever word comes to their mind at the same time. Sometimes, the students have to clarify what word they said to others in the circle who could not hear (which is fine). Then, the student on the left turns to a new partner (on their left) and repeats the countdown and blurt. Student may not repeat words that have been blurted before (although this often happens accidentally).

The game ends when two students say the same word, at the same time.

At first, the shear improbability of two students selecting the same word out of the thousands and thousands available in their vocabularies seems ridiculously impossible.

But it’s not, because whatever the previous two words were, they create suggestions for the next two blurters! Sometime within about 10 minutes, two people will, by some miracle, blurt out the exact same word.

As the final discussion, it’s a good idea to ask students for impressions of the entire exercise, and to prompt them to speculate about what it might mean for teamwork in the groups they work in for class. Many will be hard-pressed to make any transfer, or generalization. It will help these students to be reminded that these exercises are intended to improve communication in teams. They do this on one level, which is to prompt students to pay close attention to one another, and less attention to themselves.Remember that the goal of improv is to make your partner look good (by giving uyp concern for how you look).

One a deeper level, the exercises are intended to help students realize that other students have thoughts, feelings, and behaviors — in short, experiences — that are sometimes the same and sometimes different. Teamwork requires understanding of the thoughts, feelings, and actions of our teammates, and the way those experiences shape our own.