Empathy Walk—What is it and why can it change your perception?

bolder processes


Imagine having a tool that allows you to step into someone else's shoes, experience their world, and understand their thoughts and emotions. This is exactly what an Empathy Walk offers. It's a practice designed by MIT Professor Emeritus Ed Schein, who has been exploring the realms of organizational culture, learning, and leadership for the past five decades.

But what makes Empathy Walk a real thing? It's more than just a conversation – it's a journey into another person's world. It's about consciously developing your empathy skills and experiencing different levels of listening.

Purpose of the practice

The aim of the Empathy Walk is twofold: to explore the world from another person's perspective and to consciously enhance and train your empathy skills. It's also a means to practice third and fourth-level listening skills.

The Process

The idea is simple: one person shares their story, and the other person listens, truly listens. This process isn't about providing solutions or giving advice. Instead, it's about understanding, empathizing, and connecting on a deep, human level.

1. Decide on the order - Determine who will play the role of storyteller and listener first and who will take the second turn.

2. The listener sets a timer for 15-25-35 minutes This is the only time completely dedicated to the storytelling and listening processes.

3. The storyteller begins to tell their story in free form. The storyteller's task is to share their current reality as fully and openly as possible.

As a storyteller, you can rely on the following lines:

   – What journey led me to where I am today?

   – What challenging situations have I already overcome, and what helped me get through them?

   – What are the key challenges I am facing?

   – Who are the people in my life?

   – What do I need to learn, accept, and let go of?

   – How do I need to change in order to realize my potential and tackle the challenges?

   – What kind of help and support do I need from others?

4. In the meantime, the listener pays close attention to the storyteller using the "Yes, and..." formula.

The listener's job is to mute their inner voice of judgment and criticism and open the gateway to curiosity and not-knowing. They should try to derive pleasure from the exploration and presence of the other person. Through this, they aim to foster understanding and empathy toward the other person's reality. They seek to understand the other person to the fullest extent possible while also noticing their own reactions.

The Empathy Walk offers an excellent opportunity to cultivate empathy and understanding. By stepping into another person's shoes and exploring their world, we gain a new perspective and enrich our own view of life.

In an Empathy Walk, you're a listener on an unplanned, exciting trip with the storyteller. It's about switching off your internal GPS of judgments and opening up to the landscape of curiosity. It's like exploring a new town without a map and guidelines.

Key guidelines for the practice

The listener should ask clarifying questions to better understand the situation and help the storyteller delve deeper into their experience. The listener must avoid interrupting with rational queries, personal opinions, or references to their own experiences. Embrace moments of pause and silence.

It's crucial to note that the listener shouldn't offer advice, assess the content of the story, or attempt to help or rectify the storyteller's situation.

1. Both participants should maintain awareness of their bodily sensations throughout the interaction. It's important not to listen on autopilot or become entirely absorbed in the other person's narrative. Be mindful of the thoughts, emotions, questions, and metaphors that emerge during the story. Periodically, the listener should reflect on their listening level, where their attention is centered, and whether judgment, the urge to give advice or criticism of the other person's reality arises.

2. After the timer rings, the storyteller should find a way to conclude their narrative.

3. The listener shares a metaphor that came to mind during the story, using the formula:

When you were speaking, what first popped into my mind was...

They also share observations, feelings, or fresh perspectives about the reality that emerged from the listening process:

- What surprised me?

- What touched me?  

- Is there something else that I need to say/discuss/clarify?


You can spend some time discussing these aspects together.


4. Both participants reflect on their ability to maintain the three points of contact (attention on oneself, the other, and the space between the two) and what that experience was like

5. The storyteller makes notes in a notebook or on their phone if necessary: their current view of the situation, what they have learned, and any ideas they wish to take away.

6. Participants may express gratitude to each other.

7. The process is then repeated in reverse.

In some time, you might send the other person a message with words of appreciation and afterthoughts and emotions that arose after your meeting. This post-interaction reflection can reinforce the insights gained from the Empathy Walk and further strengthen the bond between the participants.

Benefits for Organizations and Interactions Among Colleagues

Trust me - this practice runs deep. It can be a touching and nurturing experience, hence why it can be extremely relevant for environments where people are bonding on a daily basis. That's why work environments can naturally benefit from it too!

Building Connections

Through Empathy Walks, colleagues get to know each other on a deeper level. They're not just sharing professional experiences but also personal journeys. This fosters genuine connections and trust among teammates.

Creating a Supportive Environment

With a deeper understanding of each other’s experiences and challenges, people can better support each other. The workplace becomes not just about work but also about human connections and mutual support.

Unlocking Creativity and Innovation

By understanding different perspectives, we can unlock new ideas and solutions we might not have thought of on our own. It's amazing how a fresh perspective can turn a problem into an opportunity!

A Happier Workplace

When people feel heard, understood, and supported, they feel happier and more satisfied at work. And a happier workplace is a more productive one.

Becoming Better Leaders

For managers, Empathy Walks offer an invaluable opportunity to understand their team's feelings and experiences, helping them become more compassionate and effective leaders.

A Simple Plan to Bring Empathy to Your Workplace

1. Spreading the Word

Start by sharing with your colleagues what Empathy Walks are and why they're so powerful. You could do this in a team meeting, or maybe even over coffee.

2. Setting the Stage

Make sure everyone understands the "rules" of an Empathy walk and is willing to try it out; this is a time for listening and understanding, not judging or fixing.

3. Making the Match

Think about pairing up with different colleagues for your Empathy Walks. Each combination—whether it's a peer-to-peer, manager-to-team member, or even manager-to-manager—offers unique opportunities to learn and grow.

4. Finding the Right Time

Work together to find the best times for your Empathy Walks. It could be a regular slot each week, or perhaps you mix it up depending on everyone's schedules.

5. Sharing and Reflecting

After each Empathy Walk, spend some time reflecting on the experience. What did you learn? How do you feel? And remember, this isn't about criticism; it's about learning and understanding.

6. Nurturing the Practice

Keep reminding each other about the value of Empathy Walks. Offer support and encouragement, especially to those who might find it difficult at first. The most important thing is to keep going and be patient. Building a culture of empathy takes time, but it's worth it!

Empathy Walk in my own experience

1. By embarking on the Empathy Walk, you start to realize just how often you're not truly listening, even when you think you are. It's like you're tuning into a radio station, but your own projections and advice-seeking tendencies interfere with the signal. To reach the authentic level of listening, where you truly hear rather than judge, you need to sift through several layers of 'hearing.' You can't help but filter everything through your own lens. Yet, this practice helps you temporarily disengage from your own narrative, allowing you to truly feel the other person's reality.

2. All too often, we fall into the trap of advice-giving when we should be listening. Yet, many times, what people really need is to be truly heard, accepted, and have their experiences validated by their conversation partner. This practice helps to nurture this very skill of listening without the urge to solve or advise.

3. While listening to someone else, resistance may emerge. This usually manifests when you find yourself itching to interrupt or interject with your own thoughts. However, the rules of the Empathy Walk do not permit this, creating an intriguing opportunity to observe yourself. What are the things that trigger such impulses in you? Why, at that very moment, do you feel the need to speak up? It's a wonderful mirror, reflecting many facets of your personality that might otherwise go unnoticed. This practice, in its subtle way, becomes a tool for introspection, letting you understand more about your own listening patterns and reactions.

So, there you have it  - the Empathy Walk, a simple yet impactful practice that’s transformed the way we interact at Bolder agency.

In the mundane, we often forget to truly listen to the people around us. This practice has reminded us of the magic that happens when we simply pause, listen, and empathize.

I'd encourage you all to try it. You'll be surprised at the difference it makes - not just at work, but also in your personal life. After all, empathy isn't a skill we clock out of, it's a part of being human.

Give it a whirl, and who knows? You might just start seeing the world (and maybe yourself!) a little differently.

Angelina, Ops Lead at Bolder agency

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