5 Quick and Easy Empathy Training Activities for Busy Teams

February 6th, 2017 | Kaye Chapman | Customer Service
5 Quick and Easy Empathy Training Activities for Busy Teams

We all like to feel like others understand us, right?

And it’s not possible to fully understand another person, without practicing empathy.

People with highly developed empathetic abilities build rapport more easily, communicating in a way that shows respect for differing opinions and collaborating to find solutions to problems which truly fit everyone involved.

In the contact center, there will always be times that we may not be able to give customers exactly what they want. But empathy can be practiced all of the time, and training your agents to be more empathetic increases their ability to work with customers to find alternatives that will leave them happy.

Empathy has measurable business benefits too – in the 2015 Global Empathy Index, the top 10 companies increased their value more than twice as much as the bottom 10, and brought in 50% more earnings.

Effective yet easy empathy training activities can be incredibly difficult to design. Empathy, by its nature, is often an emotive subject, so finding activities that teach empathy skills authentically yet not in a heavy-handed way can be tough.

These activities are designed to promote discussion around what your customers could be feeling, and how we can more easily meet them on their level. They are also designed to explore self-awareness and the impact that our own thoughts, feelings and behavior can have on rapport with others.

They also have ready-made debriefs included, which you can use to ensure the messages are hitting home.

If you’re still in any doubt about the value of empathy training activities, consider this quote from Jim Bush, Executive VP at American Express:

“Investing in quality talent, and ensuring they have the skills, training and tools that enable them to empathize and actively listen to customers, are central to providing consistently excellent service experiences.”
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  1. The Dress

    Focus: Perspective taking

    Duration: 15 minutes

    What You’ll Need: Picture of The Dress

    This is a powerful activity designed to show us that even things that we consider unchangeable in the way they are perceived – like color – can be seen totally differently by different people.

    Show your team the picture of “The Dress” and ask them what color it is – is it blue and black or white and gold?

    empathy training activities dress

    The picture should promote some good natured argument! Let your team reason with each other for a little while. You will find that the group is split, or that some group members are even able to see it both ways.

    For those who have not seen this picture before, explain that this picture emerged on the internet in 2015 and is still being investigated by scientists because of its ability to show differences in color perception between people.

    Now, pose some questions to the group.

    • How did you feel about those who saw the dress the same way as you?
    • How did you feel about those who saw the dress differently?
    • Point out that when this phenomenon occurred, people even put themselves into “Teams” on social media – Team Blue/Black and Team White/Gold. What are the implications of this?
    • Can you think a situation in real life when someone saw a situation differently to you? Were you likely to think they were outright wrong? Is it possible that you were wrong, or neither of you were wrong?
    Debrief: If something we all view as being universal between us – like our ability to perceive color – is actually not universal at all, this has big ramifications for our interactions. Part of being empathetic is the ability to bridge differences in perception, even if another person’s point of view is radically different to yours. Today, as you speak to your customers, think about the ways that you can relate to, rather than isolate others despite differing opinions. Understanding that others have a right to see things differently can make all the difference in helping people feel respected, listened to and understood.
  2. Thoughts, Feelings, Behavior

    Focus: Self Awareness, Positive Thinking

    Duration: 20 minutes

    What You’ll Need: Whiteboard or Flipchart

    This is an exercise adapted from cognitive behavioral therapy techniques, which are traditionally used to help people identify and change “faulty” thinking patterns. It can be very useful for helping a team become more aware of the impact of their thoughts, feelings and behavior on themselves and their customers.

    Split your team into pairs and ask them to discuss the last time they experienced feeling angry, overwhelmed, upset, or a similar emotion. Give them 5 minutes to share stories.

    Draw up the thoughts / feelings / behavior cycle on a whiteboard or flipchart and explain that the three influence each other. The cycle can continue or get worse if none of these three things change.

    empathy training activities thought feeling

    Give an example: Imagine that you need to give a presentation to a group of colleagues. If this makes you feel quite nervous, this could feed thoughts that you will mess up the presentation, which on the day will make you appear anxious and therefore more likely to fail – which then sets a precedent for you to feel even more anxious about presenting in the future. On the other hand, if you feel like this is a welcome challenge, you will probably be thinking that this is a welcome challenge and on the day, be well prepared and ready to dazzle your colleagues, which will give you confidence if you encounter this situation again.

    Ask the team, in their pairs, how the situation they identified before impacted their thoughts and behavior. Ask them also to consider how this would have been perceived by others around them. Give them a few minutes to discuss this.

    Bring the team back together and ask them to share some of their observations.

    Pose a question to the group:

    • How do you think this cycle works for customers who are angry? The group will probably be able to identify that feelings of upset and thoughts around how difficult their situation could be to resolve could feed a more negative reaction. They might also be able to point out that customers who have had bad customer service experiences in the past might be more likely to react badly to a problem, than those who have overall had positive past experiences.
    • Ask the team which area of the cycle is easiest to change, in order to break out of the cycle, and take some guesses.Then, position to them that research has shown that behavior is the easiest area to change – almost a “Fake it ‘till you make it” approach. Practicing alternative behaviors when you are feeling negative can be the easiest or quickest way to change your thoughts and feelings.

    In the example we gave before, if you’re worried about presenting but you choose to “face the fear and do it anyway”, you might concentrate on taking opportunities to practice your presentation ahead of time, even if you don’t like the thought of it initially. This would boost your confidence and go a long way towards helping you think more positively and feel better about the presentation.

    Debrief: Self-awareness is one of the building blocks of empathy. By being able to understand the links between the thoughts you have, the way you feel, your behavior and its impacts on a situation, you begin to look at yourself objectively and give yourself the power to break the cycle. Understanding the way these things are connected in yourself also helps you to relate to the varied reasons why a person might be behaving negatively, and help them find solutions to change their behavior, challenge their thoughts and ease their feelings.
  3. Stuck in Quicksand

    Focus: Empathy, Communication

    Duration: 20 minutes

    What You’ll Need: Quicksand diagram / Whiteboard or Flipchart, screen for video

    Sometimes, when we are trying to be empathetic we can end up saying the right things but not actually helping as we are not fully considering another person’s position from their own perspective. This exercise is useful to help your team identify what a truly empathetic response looks and feels like.

    Gather your team and explain that for any given situation another person is experiencing, we can respond to them with empathy, sympathy, or apathy.

    Show them the following diagram, or if you like, draw it up on a whiteboard or flipchart.

    empathy training activities stuck in quicksand

    Explain to the team: Imagine that you come across a person stuck in quicksand.

    Apathy in this situation would be standing back and not caring, leaving the person stuck.

    Sympathy in this situation is a response that acknowledges the other person’s situation, but doesn’t consider it from their point of view. It doesn’t help the situation, or even makes it worse. A sympathetic response to the quicksand situation would be to tell the other person that you’ll help but then leap heroically into the quicksand, without thinking that you might also get stuck.

    An empathetic response would be to relate to the person’s situation and think deeply about what could be helpful for them, if you were in their position. For the person stuck in the quicksand, you might want to think about carefully pulling them out while being aware of your own safety, or calling 911 and staying with the person until you are sure they are safe.

    Split the group into pairs and ask them to discuss a customer situation where empathy might be required, what the empathetic, sympathetic and apathetic responses to this might be, and what the impacts of those are. Give them a few minutes to do this.

    Bring the group back together and ask them to share their ideas.

    Debrief: You can use this video to help you deliver a creative and powerful debrief: Brené Brown on Empathy.
    Wrap up the session by asking your team to consider the ways they try to show empathy. Are their methods truly empathetic? Is sympathy easier for a lot of us? Challenge them to try some different things in their communications to show they are really putting themselves in their customer’s shoes.
  4. Empathy Bingo

    Focus: Empathy, Communication

    Duration: 10 minutes at the start and end of a day

    What You’ll Need: Empathy Bingo Card

    This activity is adapted from the book “Empathy – Why It Matters, and How to Get It” by Roman Krznaric, and uses many of the empathy statements from our article 30 Empathy Statements and Phrases That Show Customers You Care.

    At the start of the day, gather your team.

    Explain to the team that in order to be more empathetic, one of the first steps is noticing in what contexts empathy is used and tune our ‘empathy radar’ to understand when it happens best. This allows us to identify the situations it can be used in more effectively.

    Ask the team to shout out some of the things we say when we are demonstrating empathy, and note them down on a whiteboard or flipchart.

    Give the team the bingo card and point out that it contains a number of different statements you can use to show empathy. Their task for the day is to play bingo with the statements there.

    Team members can either listen out for phrases said by others, or mark down things they themselves said, to colleagues or to customers – as long as they were said authentically!

    By the end of the day, you should have a winner – give them a small prize if you wish.

    Gather your team and ask them to think about two things: when empathetic things were said by yourself or by others, were the speakers relaxed or stressed? What kind of mood were they in? Were they empathizing with people they knew, or people they didn’t know?

    It’s likely that the team noticed empathy being shown most from people who were relaxed, in a good mood, and who knew each other well. Position to them that the situations it can be most challenging to show empathy in, are situations when we’re not feeling very relaxed, or when we’re trying to relate to strangers.

    Debrief: Although it can be more difficult to be empathetic when you’re not feeling so relaxed, or when you’re interacting with strangers, empathy is a skill and you can train it like any other. It’s not a personality trait, and it isn’t fixed – empathy levels rise and fall depending on the situation. When you talk to your customers in the future, practice stepping outside of your ‘empathy comfort zone’. You might be surprised to find that you have the power to train your empathy skills to a truly professional level.
  5. Are You Listening?

    Focus: Communication, Listening

    Duration: 10 minutes

    What You’ll Need: Cards or paper numbered 1-5

    This is a great activity to get your team thinking about how deeply we listen in the course of our everyday communications.

    Explain to your team that whenever another person is speaking to us, we will always listen to them at one of five different levels.

    Give them this handout, or draw up the diagram on a whiteboard or flipchart, and talk them through the different levels.

    Now, split the team in half. One half of the team are speakers, the other half are listeners.

    Give the listeners a card each so there is an even mix of numbers, and ask them not to disclose the number on the card. Explain that the number on the card correlates to a level of listening, and the listener’s job is to model this style of listening while they are being spoken to. 1s should ignore the people who are speaking to them, 5s should listen empathetically, and so on.

    Ask the speakers to speak to any of the listeners about any topic that interests them – be it work-related, the weather, or anything else. Their job is to guess the listening level of as many people in the room as possible.

    Give the team five minutes to move around the room, speaking and listening to each other. You should hear some laughter as ignorers try to be absolutely disconnected, and others on lower levels try to distract others from their conversations!

    Bring the group back together and ask who thought they guessed the most. Listeners should then show their numbers to see who guessed right.

    Ask the speakers how the exercise felt. They will comment that it feels bad and is difficult to talk when another person isn’t really listening, and that empathetic listening encouraged them to talk more.

    Now, ask the listeners how that exercise felt. Those on lower numbers will probably comment that the exercise was quite easy but didn’t feel very good! Those on higher numbers will probably comment that it’s quite hard to listen empathetically, especially when there were so many distractions around them.

    Debrief: Listening empathetically all the time is really tough, especially considering the amount of distractions we have going on around us in the office. But having an awareness of lower levels of listening allows you to notice the instances you might be doing it. Practice your empathetic listening skills today and try to work out what things you can do to listen more openly and actively to your customers, as often as you can.

Have you tried any of these activities? Do you have any questions about how they might run or what other activities or knowledge could support them? Let us know in the comments below.


Kaye Chapman is the Customer Experience & Training Specialist at Live Chat 100 and Comm100. She has a wealth of experience working alongside contact centers, improving processes and delivering engaging, effective and fun learning and development solutions. Connect with her on LinkedIn.

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