Feeling bad for someone is one thing, but truly feeling someone else's pain takes things to an entirely new level. And while there are countless benefits to empathizing, it's not something that comes easy to everyone — it's like a muscle that needs to be trained.
Luckily, design and strategy company Sub Rosa has set out to make empathizing a little easier with its Questions & Empathy card deck. Consisting of 49 cards, the deck turns empathy into a game, one that's meant to strengthen relationships, prompt reflection, and, with any luck, help you be a little more empathetic in all areas of your life.
Sub Rosa founder and CEO Michael Ventura admits that that may sound a little "touchy-feely," but these cards aren't just an excuse to spill your guts in front of another person. More accurately, they're meant to facilitate conversations that can feel difficult or unnatural for many people.
Here's how the cards actually work: They're divided into seven distinct groups, based on seven "empathic archetypes," or approaches to empathy, with seven cards in each group. Each card has a "provocation," or question, printed on it that reveals something about yourself or how you relate to others (questions range from "How do you balance being self-serving and selfless?" to "Who inspires a sense of adventure within you?"). Simply draw a card from the archetype you most identify with (the deck comes with a helpful guide to all seven of them) and try to answer that card's question as you see fit. Oh, and there are no "winners" and "losers" — you just draw cards for as long as you'd like.
Ventura says playing with the cards can be a helpful team-building activity at work (he's brought out his own deck when meeting with clients), or it can be a game you play with your friends after a few drinks. It may sound strange, but empathy absolutely belongs in these (very different) settings, and there's a body of research that suggests that empathizing really can improve relationships with others. Empathy has been linked to stronger doctor-patient relationships, better job performance, and stress reduction. And unsurprisingly, a 2016 study found that being more empathetic may make you a better listener.
Of course, no deck of cards can magically bring people closer together. Playing with these cards is, more than anything, an exercise in openness and self-awareness. It's only when you make the choice to be vulnerable that you and the rest of the group will start to bond. For example, you can't answer the question, "What are the biggest sacrifices you've made?" with just a word or two. You'll probably have to reflect and share your thoughts with the group before you come to anything resembling a concise response. If that sounds scary to you, that's kind of the point — and you can always draw a different card, Ventura says.
Like we said, empathy is like a muscle. Training it takes time, and it isn't always easy. But, if you're looking for a safe, playful way to explore your empathetic side (and to see what benefits come with doing so), these cards are a great place to start.