Social impact: Dinner parties and empathy

This article first appeared in Enterprise, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on June 8, 2020 - June 14, 2020.

Empathy creates a space for people to really share what they feel, and whatever information or insights we get will help employers come up with better plans. - Wong

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Like many of her generation, Wong Gwen Yi grew up wanting to make a difference, to put her skills to work for the benefit of a cause, to be a technology entrepreneur revolutionising the learning experience.

the age of 21, she had more accolades, awards and distinctions than most of her peers. To top it off, she was accepted into Minerva Schools at KGI — a non-traditional higher education institution based in Silicon Valley, San Francisco — in 2015, which she had dreamt of entering since she ventured into tech in 2013.

But just as Wong was getting closer to her goal, things came crashing down. She left Minerva a year later for reasons that remain undisclosed, feeling lonelier than ever and thinking herself a failure. She returned to Malaysia and shut herself away from everyone.

“I kept to myself, a sort of self-imposed solitude. I needed to figure out what I wanted to do, to figure out my life,” says Wong.

But she knew she could not stay away for too long. She had to find a way to express her feelings and deal with her insecurities without judgement. It was this conundrum that eventually gave birth to the idea of Tribeless PLT — an impact-driven training and consulting company that creates safe spaces for people to learn empathy and practise it.

It was difficult for Wong to overcome her feelings of failure because she was ambitious and an overachiever, she realised. In her late teens, she was already an active volunteer at and participant of events such as the YSEALI (Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative) Generation Startup Weekend, Viet Youth Entrepreneurs Adventure Camp and Kiwanis Youth Camp Assistant. She was also accepted into the Thiel Under 20 Community, which is supported the Thiel Fellowship.

Prior to attending Minerva, Wong founded her first tech start-up, an opinion-sourcing platform on which users could pose questions to any demographic they wanted, anywhere in the world, anonymously.

“I had no idea how to talk about my experience in the US. It was so painful. All of my friends would say, ‘Gwen is living her dream in Silicon Valley.’ How could I tell them that I was back in Malaysia because things did not work out? I felt like I was letting them down, even though they had nothing to do with it,” says Wong.

“I had expectations of myself. I was ashamed that I had dropped out and could not face meeting people. What would I say to them? ‘Hi, I am Gwen. I am a dropout’?

But being the problem solver that she is, she put her organisational skills to work and came up with the idea of hosting small dinner parties with a caveat — no small talk. It was essential that the conversations were sincere and real, says Wong.

“I still wanted to meet people. I wanted to create an environment where I could be myself and other people could also be themselves. So, how to go about doing that? Dinner parties!”

Wong started hosting dinner parties in Kuala Lumpur and imposed the “no small talk” rule. To ensure that the people who attended were strangers to each other (though not to her), she carefully curated the guest list. “People had to apply and I decided who could attend,” she says.

Wong hosted her first Tribeless dinner on Sept 30, 2016, with 10 people who were associated with her in some way, although most were strangers to each other. The idea was to improve their respective emotional quotients but create a safe space in which it was all right to be vulnerable, through what she called “Tribeless Conversations”.

“That was actually the first time I opened up about everything that had happened while I was in the US. The first time you talk about something like this, you do not know how you are going to be received. There was so much fear when I chose to tell all these people whom I did not really know very well,” says Wong.

“To my surprise, not only did they accept what I was saying with kindness and compassion, they opened up themselves. Some of them were entrepreneurs and dealing with difficult times, but all of them were going through similar struggles. That was when I fully appreciated that I could actually be with others who felt safe enough to be themselves.”

Wong started hosting these parties regularly in Malaysia and overseas, and eventually on a monthly basis, charging invitees to avoid dropouts. “Every session was so powerful and the way everyone communicated and empathised with each other was empowering,” she says.

“I wanted to keep doing this. I experimented with different

formats of gathering. Sometimes, we used cards to introduce ourselves and sometimes, we would come up with games.”

Wong also came up with a way to get everyone to talk openly. “Everyone had a chance to speak, an opportunity to share. The topic of the sharing did not really come from you. We laid out words on cards and you chose the one that resonated with you the most. You had to trust the process and go along with it.

“When one person was the storyteller, everybody else was the listener, no one interrupted. Even the listeners learnt better ways to listen. We also learnt that we needed to listen to be able to give the empathetic responses that we all crave when we are vulnerable.”

The more dinners Wong organised, the more she spotted the need for honest conversation, not just to improve personal relationships but also in corporate settings. She also noticed that some people were good at tuning in to the emotions of others and were able to share those emotions, but they were not able to respond.

People have a deep-rooted tendency to move toward reciprocity, she says, and “perspective talking” is a skill that gets easier and more automatic with practice. This is important because in a highly polarised world, empathy is a valuable impulse that helps individuals survive in groups and find commonalities such as shared likes and dislikes and past experiences.

Empathy, which is said to be the hallmark of emotional intelligence, is believed to be the secret of Danish happiness. Empathy is actually part of the school curriculum in the Nordic country and it is taught to children during their most formative years.

Wong approached this as a problem to be solved. Together with two of her friends, Shawn Cheng and Ariff Ariffin Hew (who has since left to pursue other interests), she set up Tribeless.

“In my household, it was really hammered into me that you never tell your elders or bosses what you are really thinking and never talk about your problems. For me, it was so cathartic to be able to finally talk frankly about my life for the first time,” says Wong.

“Sometimes, when we organise things with strangers, these things can be a hit or miss. But the parties worked. People were sincere and encouraging.”

Then, the trio developed programmes and experiences built on the concepts of human connection and experiential education. “In fact, after two years and more than 800 hours of R&D, we developed a facilitation tool — The Empathy Box — which turns the process of having group conversations into an immersive, gamified experience. When you share in a certain way, people will actually be more open and trusting, and relationships will form,” she says.

Sometimes, even romantic relationships. “We even had a Tribeless couple that came out of one or two of the dinners,” says Wong.

Recognising that there was a science to what they were doing, the trio began wondering if they could scale it up. That was when the suggestion to turn the format of dinner parties into a deck of cards was put forth.

“That was how the Empathy Box came about. Shawn and Ariff are both huge gamers. They love thinking about the mechanics of games,” says Wong.

The deck of cards has gone through several iterations, but one thing has been constant — using the tool, many are able to speak openly.

They decided to market the Empathy Box in September 2018, expecting to sell at least 300 boxes from the get-go. But they only sold 180. From that experience, they learnt that they were addressing two types of clientele.

“One is the basic version, which is really more like a game that you can buy and play with your friends and family. Now, we have an enterprise version, which is more professional and where you get more cards, more support and training calls, among others,” says Wong.

The enterprise version, which is called Empathy Box Version 2.0, is mainly used employers, trainers, consultants and facilitators.

Seeing the impact of their work, Wong was selected to be in the first cohort of the Obama Foundation Leaders: Asia-Pacific Program, a year-long programme that focuses on values-based ethical leadership, last year.

The tool has been especially helpful in encouraging deeper conversations in the workplace, she says. “A lot of conversations in the workplace seem to be at a very artificial level. But it is very hard to break through this because it seems to be the norm in any workplace. People are expected to bring only their professional selves to work.

“Employees are expected to wear a mask at all times. But employers are seeing the need to engage with and understand their employees better. They see the potential of actually bringing real emotions into the workplace.”

Wong says perspective talking is akin to walking a mile in another’s shoes. “Whether we are speaking to a cashier or calling our mothers, we are talking. So, what is it that differentiates a good or positive conversation from one that goes awry or not according to plan?

“We have identified that it is empathy that makes the difference. When you talk, you should try to see things from the other person’s perspective. doing so, you will naturally be more respectful, more honest and kinder towards the other person. And in a way, also towards yourself.”

Having sincere conversations is even more important in this age of automation, which is displacing workers and transforming the notion of work. Wong says the more we move towards digitalisation, the more support is needed to stay engaged.

“A lot of transformation projects fail because, although we have a spanking new tool, we do not talk enough to each other about how to use the tool to do the work better. A lot of the lack of communication stems from fear — such as fear of whether the tool will take over their jobs or fear of something new,” she points out.

If people do not have a safe space to talk about and address their fears, they will not be able to come up with effective measures to counter them. “Empathy creates a space for people to really share what they feel, and whatever information or insights we get will help employers come up with better plans,” says Wong.

She recalls that at one of their corporate training sessions, a CEO admitted to making a mistake and confessed that she felt like she had let her team down. “Interestingly, this was the first time her underlings had ever heard their leader open up. One co-worker said, ‘I always saw you as someone impenetrable and strong and nothing ever bothered you. But now we know that our work matters and contributes to whatever you do. I am so happy that I finally get to see you as a human being and I actually respect you even more.’”

Although the session ended with a lot of hugs and tears, everyone began to understand each other at a deeper level. “All that in just 30 minutes,” Wong points out.

“There is a misconception that these kinds of conversations take hours or half-day retreats to achieve. If you think about it, it is very ironic right? We do not talk about any of this for a whole year and suddenly, at the end of the year when there is a performance review or an annual retreat, you expect all the problems from the past year to be settled on that one occasion.  

“Can you imagine having a work culture where you can have an honest conversation for just 30 minutes and you come out of it energised?”

Many people fear confrontation or being punished for being truthful. But with empathy comes a sense of safety, says Wong. “When you know that the default response is empathy, you suddenly feel free to speak your mind. I think that is the main gap in the communication that we have now as the world we live in grows more and more diverse.”

She says she hopes to work with educational institutions to encourage the skills of empathy. “A lot of mental health initiatives are popping up in schools and universities, in addition to the typical peer counselling. A lot of people are realising that it does not work as well anymore because the students are not being open about their problems with the counsellors.

“This means a lot to me personally because I went through depression. Having a safe space to talk about things is very important.

“So, what we at Tribeless intend to do is provide the training and tools for these students to learn the skills of empathy from a young age so they can create spaces on their campus to support one another.”