Some of the Many Ways You Can Play to Evolve

EQ in Acapulco 2017
Austin EQ 2018

First, Some Terminology

The “A Practical EmPath” system (PEP) is based on Nonviolent Communication (NVC) by Marshall Rosenberg.

Read Scott’s related book “A Practical EmPath“!

Share Cards or Deck: Yellow “question” cards.

Resource Cards: Each player gets 3 of these, which consist of (1) Formula for empathy and examples of empathy and on the back, examples of not empathy; (2) feelings, front and back; and (3) needs/wants/values, front and back.

Jackal (Antagonist) Cards: Each person draws one and keeps the contents secret from the others until they choose to use it.

Speaker: The person whose turn it is, who draws a yellow share card and answers the question, speaking “normal,” not trying to speak with PEP or in any special manner.

Listener(s): The other person or people playing. Their role is to empathize.

The PEP formula for empathy (OFNR):

  • Observation – without evaluation
  • Feeling
  • Need – We use “wants” or “values,” in order to sound more natural. Why?
  • Request – positive and do-able. Note: Positive do-able request is not always necessary. In our culture we are often eager to provide a quick fix when people more often just want to be heard. So, as the purpose of this game is more about the more verbal aspects of empathy, in this game there is little emphasis on the request part of OFNR.


Sympathy vs Empathy

Empathy-for-other can be hard for beginners to put into words. For more ease and fun, you can start playing with sympathy or self-empathy, which are similar.

Sympathy: “What you said reminded me of the time I spoke up in a scary situation and felt excited to be expressing myself.”

Self-empathy: Usually spoken silently to self. “When I heard her say that… what is my feeling? Hope? What would my want or value be? Expression!”

Self-empathy (out loud): “When I heard you say that, I feel excited and hopeful …” If being clinical or in a practice environment like this game, we’d add a want/value (NVC uses “need,” which we are moving away from) in that same sentence, like: “… because this meets my need for expression.” To sound more natural, we might rephrase the “need” part as, “… because I value self expression,” or “… because I want to be free to express myself.”

Empathy (Empathy-for-other): “When I imagine you in that situation where no one is expecting you to speak and you do, I wonder if you were simultaneously afraid and elated [maybe stop here to get a response before guessing at needs…] because you value expression and courage?”

The idea is to practice these methods so that they become integrated into our way of being so we can then abandon the formula.

In crucial conversations I recommend slowing it down. We might first just make the observation and guess at their feeling, wait for a response, and go from there to – if appropriate – guess at the wants/values.


Play method: Standard

(Most difficult & most educational)

Matt, Josephine, and Stacy are playing.

Josephine begins the game by drawing a yellow Share Card. She is the “Speaker” this turn. The card she drew says, “Name something you do to relax.” Josephine thinks for a moment and says, “I really like when I pet my cat and she purrs.”

Optional: Josephine can choose to self empathize before the others try to empathize with what she said. She might use the full on OFNR formula mentioned above or she might just add, “This meets my need for nurturing.”

Matt attempts to give empathy. Here is where Matt can choose to self-empathize / sympathize OR offer empathy to Josephine. If he choses self-empathy / sympathy, he might say something like this:

“When I hear you talk about petting your cat and I picture it in my mind, I feel happy because I care about you and know how you like it.” <– this is self-empathy.


“When I hear you talk about petting your cat, it reminds me of how I enjoy doing the same thing, which meets my values for affection, connection, and contribution.” <– this is sympathy.

Now if Matt wants to really push his own growth and go for a deeper connection and understanding of Josephine, he will choose to try empathy-for-other and it might sound like this: “When you pet your cat and you hear her purring, do you feel satisfied because your get the nurturing you like (need/value)?”

Josephine: “Yes!” and [if tracking points] hands Matt the yellow Share Card to show that Matt has scored a point. If Matt’s empathy had not been accurate, Josephine could say, “Nope. Want to try again?” OR “Close. It’s more about the feel of the cat’s fur.” At which point Matt can choose to try again or pass so that Stacy can try.

The default is for the Speaker to address each Listener’s attempt at empathy before the next Listener tries. An alternate method is for the Speaker to wait until she has heard empathy from everyone and then give feedback. There are pros and cons to both methods of play.

When Josephine (the Speaker) receives what she considers to be the most accurate empathy, she gives her card to the winner. For those who don’t want to keep score, it is easy to leave out the awarding of a card.

It is now the next person’s turn to be the “Speaker” and draw a Share Card.


Play method: Easy / Shout it out

As in “Standard Play”, Josephine begins the game by drawing a card that she reads out loud: “Share about something you have felt anger over.” Josephine thinks for a moment and says, “I really hate it when cars get too close to my car in traffic.”

Now Josephine asks, “What are my feelings about this?” All players who want to can shout out, simultaneously if they want, what feelings they think Josephine is having.

Bev shouts, “Annoyed!”
Chris shouts, “Pissed off!”
Alex shouts, “Curious.”
Jeff shouts, “Frustrated.”

Now – if any of those guesses are accurate, Josephine picks the feeling that seems most accurate for her and says, “My feeling is: Pissed off! What are my wants or values that underlie that feeling?” Now, again, all players can shout out what needs or values they think are connected to Josephine being pissed off.

Alex shouts, “Safety.”
Jeff shouts, “Security.”
Bev shouts, “Respect!”
Chris shouts, “Consideration!”

Josephine identifies the need/value that seems to best fit and gives the card to the winner.

It is now the next person’s turn to be the “Speaker” and draw a card.

(1) Players take turns being the “Speaker.”
(2) The Speaker draws a yellow card and reads out loud, answering the question.
(3) “Listener(s)” shout out a feeling, which is a guess as to what the Speaker is feeling.
(4) Speaker picks a feeling that seems most accurate and invites Listener(s) to now guess what wants/values – met or unmet – have created the feeling.
(5) Listener(s) shout out needs/values.
(6) Speaker picks a need/value that fits best and/or gives feedback and/or asks for Listeners to try again.
(7) Speaker gives the card to the person he/she judges to have shared the most accurate need/value.
(8) Now the next player is Speaker.

For beginners, distinguishing between feelings and needs/values can be difficult. While this distinction is important, it is not crucial. A modification to this game play method that increases ease and flow: Listeners can shout out either a feeling or a need/value without needing to distinguish between the two.


Play method: Easy / Conversational

One person uses the green “needs/values” or “feelings” resource card to pick a need or feeling and speak it so everyone hears. Players take turns sharing a situation where that need or feeling was met/unmet or experienced. This is a great way to boost familiarity with the wants and feelings vocabulary of empathy.

Play method: Turnaround


Matt draws a card and reads it out loud. “What gives you hope?”

Now each player attempts to answer for Matt.

Josephine says, “Does it give you hope that – on average – violence in the world is on a constant decline?”

Lance asks of Matt, “Does it give you hope to see your daughter making responsible choices?”

Matt: “Lance got it!”

Play method: Contrast

(idea from Katie Voluntaryist Testa)

Everyone draws one or more of the orange “antagonist” cards.

One player draws and shares their story, same as the primary play method.

Out of the remaining players, all but one will use their orange cards; speaking advice, reassurance, evaluation, blame, shame, guilt, etc. The LAST person, perhaps the facilitator, will offer empathy.

Play method: Jackal

This play style is the same as the “Standard” method with one addition. Prior to starting play, each player is provided the opportunity to choose one of the orange Jackal (Antagonist) Cards. Keep the content of your orange card a secret.

Then, any time the player has an opportunity to empathize, they can choose, instead to give what is on their card. In the following example, we’ll assume Matt drew the “Advising” card.


Matt, instead of attempting to empathize with Josephine about her cat-petting, chooses to give advice. He does so with a straight face.

“Josephine have you thought of trading your cat for a dog, which I hear are far better creatures, overall?”

This provides all players an opportunity to recognize what Matt did and hopefully, call him out on it. Cue laugh track.

Play method: Mime-it

(Like Charades)

Taking turns, one person uses the green “needs/values” or “feelings” resource card to pick a need/value or feeling and share it quietly so everyone, except for one person, knows the word. That one person is the “guesser”. Then the other players use words and/or gestures to try to help the “guesser” guess the word. This is a great way to boost familiarity with feelings and needs/values.

The idea for this game variation came from another NVC-based card game; Grok. The play method above is easier when you use the Grok cards.