Empathy Training Activities

Tearful Businesswoman Being Consoled by a Colleague Sitting at a Table in an Office Canteen

Digital Vision./Photodisc/Getty Images

The skill of empathy, or showing sensitivity to others' feelings, is one of the underpinnings of friendship. Children with emotional or social delays often need to be taught empathy directly. Adults who work in a social environment also use empathy; it can mean the difference between a client who feels understood and taken care of, or a client who feels alone and unheard. Some businesses therefore include empathy training as part of their training programs.

Facial Expressions

One way to help people develop the skill of empathy is to encourage them to connect facial expressions to the emotion that they communicate. Present them with a number of pictures of people expressing various emotions, and ask them to identify what the person in each of the photos is feeling. They can then choose several of these photos and discuss a scenario that may have led the person in each photo to feel that emotion. For example, if one of the faces looks panicked, the participant might say that it was caused by seeing a child nearing the edge of a pool.

Don't Be Judgmental

In this activity, participants should write down three values that they believe are incredibly important in their own lives. They should then choose one of these values and imagine someone who lacks this value, and ask themselves questions about how this could be true. What upbringing might have led this hypothetical person to reject this important value? What event may have shaped this person's viewpoint to be different from the participant? How would the participant interact with this person and empathize with a viewpoint that goes against this value? Answering these questions can enable participants to move into another person's mind and lower their judgmental feelings toward people who are different from them.

Role Play

Role playing can also help participants to demonstrate empathy for another person's struggles. For example, one person might have the job of telling a second person about a difficult experience that he has just gone through, while the second person does not show empathy. That might mean interrupting the speaker, brushing off the speaker's feelings as illogical, or speaking in a non-empathetic tone. A replay would give the listener a chance to really listen empathetically, mirroring back the speaker's feelings and experiences and naming the speaker's emotions so that he knows that the listener actually understood him. This activity can help identify the many important factors in listening empathetically, as well as some common pitfalls to successful empathetic listening.

Empathy for Disabilities

Many different activities can be helpful in developing empathy for people with various disabilities. For example, trying to complete a task blindfolded or with earplugs in can help a person to feel empathy for those who have hearing or visual impairments. Giving a participant a long list of items to remember verbally can help them understand the frustration of those who are given a task that is beyond their capabilities, due to a learning or intellectual disability. Participants can also try to navigate a building while in a wheelchair or answer questions using only two-word sentences in order to get a glimpse into how difficult everyday activities can be for those with physical or mental disabilities.