Thirty-six questions that create empathy, intimacy, and even spark love.

I hope we can all agree that the ability to feel empathy is critical to leading a successful and worthwhile life. That being said, I would love to share with you a wonderful exercise that you might want to try—an exercise that I like to call The Empathy Game. The inspiration for this “game” comes from a study done at the State University of New York, Stony Brook, by Professor Arthur Aron in 1997. Click here to watch a video featuring Professor Aron.

Originally titled “The Experimental Generation of Interpersonal Closeness: this study is now more commonly described as “The 36 questions that spark love.” Professor Aron’s experiment went something like this:

He created two groups of volunteers who had never met and asked both groups to divide into couples. He told group one, simply sit and talk with each other for 45 minutes. They were to be the control group. Next, he gave group two a more complex task. He handed each participant an identical list of 36 questions, which they were to take turns asking their partners.

Volunteer One would ask question one, and listen as volunteer two answered it. Next volunteer two would ask the same question, and listen while volunteer one answered it. And so, the session would go, back and for the entire list of 36 questions, each partner answering the same question in turn. The questions were in sets of twelve; they began simply enough with questions like “If you could invite anyone in the world to dinner, who would it be and why,” or “Before making a phone call, have you ever rehearsed what you are going to say? Why?” or, “What would constitute a perfect day for you?” As the session progressed however, the questions become more personal and probing. Questions like, “Share a moment that was deeply embarrassing.” Or When did you last cry in front of a person? When did you last cry by yourself?” Or “If you were to die this evening with no opportunity to communicate with anyone, what would you most regret not having told someone? Why haven’t you told them yet?”

At the end of the sessions, the control group usually said, “Nice to meet you,” received their stipend, and headed out the door. Reaction in the second group was quite different. They often sat talking long after the session was over; they reported feelings of friendship and empathy; many of the couples exchanged information so they could meet again later, and yes, some even dated.

The study hypothesized that “one key pattern associated with close relationships among peers is sustained, escalating, reciprocal, personal self-disclosure. Allowing oneself to be vulnerable is exceedingly difficult, so this exercise forces the issue.”

Now I am not going to list all 36 questions. Click here to read them in the original New York Times Article.

I am also not suggesting that you try this exact exercise with the people in your life. I just want you to notice how important the give-and-take is in developing empathetic and intimate relationships. Sharing similar stories is healthy in relationships. Just be sure that you listen to their stories as much as you share yours, and vice versa. As far as kids go, teaching them this skill of give-and-take is critical to their ability to develop fulfilling relationships in life.

I do have an idea for an empathy training activity. Something you can play with adults at a party, or employees during team building training, or your kids after school. Take a look at the questions and write out a few of the less intimate or embarrassing ones. You could even write out a few questions om your own. Write the questions on individual sheets of paper and put them in a “hat.” Have someone in the group pull out a question and then have every one in the group take turns answering it.

I can imagine parents doing this at the dinner table, one question per night, as a kind of bonding experience. I can see work teams doing this s a warm up to meetings. I can see myself with my Embassy Kids pulling out questions at our meetings as a kind of meeting “tradition.”

I think that I will try it. I hope you will too. I promise to share my story about how it goes, if you promise to do the same.

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