The Empathy Games

Let’s play a little game.

I’ll call these games The Empathy Games. It’s like The Hunger Games, except it’s pretty much unrelated. I think. Rather than everybody but one dying in the end (or two, I suppose — I watched the first movie but didn’t care much for it, so not 100% sure), in The Empathy Games everybody lives at the end. Unless something really random happens. In fact, I’d argue that the chances of survival of the participants increase if you play, now that I think of it. That’s pretty cool. So it’s perhaps the inverse of The Hunger Games. Also: it’s a path to world peace. Again.

Anyhoo. Here’s how the game works.

Level 1

Pick a person elsewhere in your company that you really don’t understand, that shows behavior that seems pretty batshit crazy to you. It can even be a group: a team, a department.

“Oh those people in X really don’t know what they’re doing; completely incompetent!”

“Oh that person Y always pulls stuff like that, we’ve been trying to change this but... nope. There they go again!”

“Oh that’s classic Z behavior. They have zero understanding of what really matters, they just do whatever the heck they want, not a care in the world! Sounds fun having a job like that, livin’ the life!”

You may want to dial these down or up depending on how judgmental you are, but you get the idea.

Got somebody, or a group in mind?

If not: congratulations, you win.

For everybody else, and it admit it: that includes you — let’s proceed.

We now have two options.

You can play this game on Easy mode, or Hard mode. Confusingly, depending on your personality/skillset one mode may be Hard for one, and Easy to the other. Let me just describe the modes, and you decide which one works for you.

The first play mode is to imagine doing the exercise and predicting the result. The second option is to actually do the exercise for realzies, and discover the result. The first requires less effort, but may be hard for some people (with lower empathy skills) to do, the second obviously will have the bigger impact but requires more commitment and negotiation — as you’ll see.

The exercise

Imagine living alongside the person or group you have in mind for a few weeks or even months.

Every morning, you sit next to them at their desk. You join the same meetings. You read their Slack conversations. You join them on their coffee breaks, talk about their life story, their education, their previous jobs. You join them at the dinner table, hearing the conversations they have with their family (if any). You follow along as they interact with you, or your group, from their perspective. Once or twice, you have a beer with them after work. Or a green tea, if that’s more your thing.

Imagine doing this, or somehow negotiating actually doing this.

We can take a little break here as you perform this exercise. Go ahead. I’ll wait.

Back? Ok.

Now, after performing this exercise, is your conclusion still: yep, I was right — this person/group is completely crazy. I have no idea why they do what they do, what they’re trying to achieve or why they work this way. It’s confirmed: they’re just insane.

Or... Or... (to quote Barney Stinson)

Do you think that — even though you may just have imagined this exercise and don’t know what you’ll uncover — chances are high that you’ll actually understand their perspective, and things make a lot more sense?

Is it perhaps at all possible that from their perspective, you’re the crazy one. And in fact you may both be righ... err wrong?


Did you get there? If so, you are now ready for the next level. If not, replay in Hard mode, and actually do the exercise for real.

Level 2 and beyond

The next level is harder, but if you continue, and progress to the levels after that, your perspective on people may actually change forever. Forever!

Yes, I do enjoying dialing up the drama whenever I can. I mean, I’m a manager, what other opportunities for drama do I have?


I’m not much of a gamer (the only games I enjoy are mind games) and therefore my level design skills are rather poor. Therefore, level 2 is mostly a repeat of level 1 with one twist. In level 2, we don’t look for somebody or a group in our company that we don’t fully get. Instead, we pick one a bit farther away. Perhaps it’s a political party. Perhaps it’s people in another country.

Imagine being brought up with these people, living alongside them for weeks, months, years. Depending on the case, having gone through the same life experiences, same history, same traumas.

Now from their perspective, look back at you. What do you look like?

Whether or not you are successful seeing exactly what they see, can you at least imagine that you’ll be surprised? That in fact, when you’re there, their actions and behavior make sense?


Feel free to progress to more advanced levels from here. Moving the target farther and farther away. Think of the noisy neighbor, the homeless person on the street. Or the end boss: the most evil people you can think of. What is their origin story? What did their gene pool look like? What did their life look like up to this point? Could that explain anything?

You get the idea.

I’ve joked on various occasions about randomly wandering onto a path to world peace. This is another one. I think that if everybody would play The Empathy Games, there would be no more war. People would get along.

But once more, I have to disappoint. This won’t happen. It’s too hard. It takes too much energy. Life is complicated enough to figure out for ourselves, trying to do this for every person that we meet so that we can understand their actions is not realistic.

It’s easier to whip out a quick judgment. “Oh yeah, that’s classic X, they always Pull Shit like that.”

But perhaps we don’t have to? Even if we can’t always explain people’s actions, approaches and attitudes, that doesn’t mean there’s no good explanation for them.

Perhaps assuming good intent is all we need to be able to do.

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