As a professional facilitator, I am always looking for new tools to create experiences for the groups I work with. Whether it is training, team building, or strategic planning, I find that groups are able to reach new insights when they have a meaningful experience together. 

Facilitation tools, such as the one I am about to highlight, can help a group uncover their own communication challenges and discover their own solutions to those challenges. This is far more effective than having the group’s leader or an outside facilitator try to identify the challenges and tell the group what they are and how to fix them.

Experiences that engage both the mind and the body at the same time are very effective. When you are doing something with your body and you have a new insight, it is as if the insight is captured in the body because you were having a memorable physical experience. Now that I am facilitating online and working with remote teams, this has become more difficult. Difficult, but not impossible.

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In January I became a licensed Online Empathy Toy Facilitator. The empathy toy is an experiential learning tool that is very well designed and very flexible for different types of groups in different situations. To play online, we actually start by identifying a few team members who will receive the game pieces in the mail ahead of time. 

Then, on the day of, the team is split into different roles. The participants who received the game pieces in the mail are the Builders and the other participants serve as Guides. The Guides receive digital images. The images depict the way in which the pieces should be assembled into a final structure. The challenge is that the images are taken from different perspectives. We often make it more challenging by putting constraints on how the team can communicate or how much time they have to solve the puzzle. Guides then tell the Builders how to construct the pieces, and that’s where the collaboration starts.

Although originally designed for kids and classrooms, the Empathy Toy has now been used by facilitators like me throughout North America for workplace training, team building, and process facilitation.

The groups that I have guided through the exercise have found it to be fun and insightful. We start out with easy warm up rounds, but soon the game is modified to be more complex and challenging. The participants get frustrated, but even in their frustration, they are more determined to solve the puzzle before them. After each round, I conduct a debrief and we have a rich conversation about what was hard, what made it easier, how they modified their communication to assist their team, and how they dealt with new obstacles during the exercise.

The Empathy Toy experience is similar to other games or puzzles, however, I have found it to be the most well-designed kit when working with workplace groups. Since the most valuable part of the exercise is the debrief and the ability to suss out the takeaways and to navigate conversations about any sticky communication challenges that were unearthed, I recommend going through the exercise with an experienced facilitator.