As customer experience and hospitality professionals, we use the word empathy all the time. It is the baseline of experience design. Yet, few of us truly understand it. Last month, a client said to me “In order to advise on customer experience, you need to have had experiences.”
This phrase resonated with me. In the context of recent events, I realized even more profoundly, that life experiences are how we become truly empathetic.
Let’s take me for example. Nineteen years ago, I took my first flight ever, from Bulgaria. Destination – New York City. Then, on May 14th 2001, on the corner of Madison Square Garden, I saw an Indian person for the first time in my life. Today, my daughter is half-Indian. If I had not taken off from my white homeland, I would have never walked the walk of not using the color of people’s skin as a justification for division or inequity.
See, without interactions there is no conduit for empathy to enter our minds, let alone for us to have a “worldview.” It was sixteen years after boarding that plane, that I married a person of a different race, and we later had our beautiful daughter. But what happens to those who never leave? Do they ever gain an understanding or appreciation of the beauty of our differences? This is the long journey I want to talk about today.
Have Uncomfortable Conversations
In 2016 Joshua Fields, the CEO of AT&T, stood in front of his employees and shared the story of his close friend Chris. After seeing a recording of his friend sharing what it felt like growing up as a Black man in the United States, Joshua Fields felt ashamed. Over decades of friendship, he had never DISCUSSED race with his friend. He also realized the harsh reality of Chris’s adolescence, so different from his own.
Joshua Fields’ story helped clarify how indifference and being “too polite” to ask uncomfortable questions about race can perpetuate inequality. I will never forget the time a friend of mine, a Black man, was refused service at a bar in Florida. He is a former basketball player, and a foot taller than I am. There is no way the bartender saw me but, somehow, could not see him. He was refused service, while I was offered immediate service. I did not even have to ask. It was abundantly clear, mutually uncomfortable, and wholly unacceptable.
Be Motivated to Change
That was more than a bad hospitality experience. For me, it was an eye-opening learning experience. Because I encountered this, it became easier for me to recognize how frequently these experiences happen. It helped make me want to fight for better.
In many ways, travel is at the heart of empathy and understanding. It fuels compassion and caring. And it does not matter how far away you go. Empathy-building travel is not limited to individuals with means and copious amounts of time. What is important is to travel anywhere you can. Carry with you curiosity, openness to learn, and willingness to have uncomfortable conversations.
As a mother of a bi-racial child, I am constantly referred to the many available resources for talking to children about race. It is an uncomfortable reality that we need such a comprehensive infrastructure for our children to understand their friends.
Things can be more simple. What if, like we ask the 5 Whys in experience design, our children JUST asked their friends why a few times? As Joshua Fields shared in his speech, it is when you know the why that you can figure out how to take the steps to solve even the most layered problems.
And we do have a problem. A real and painful problem. Fourteen years ago, my dear friend, a Black woman, welcomed me into her community and her family. Was I accepted immediately? Did I automatically understand the experiences, perspectives, and histories of her family and neighbors? No. As much as I loved her, did I automatically understand (or acknowledge) her lived experiences? No, I did not.
We need honesty about the harsh reality we live in. The reality is the odds are against Black people. And it is our responsibility to change that.
How do we acknowledge privilege and encourage people to ask their colleagues what it really feels like to be a Black person in the country and in the world? And to listen to those answers without interruption, without the impulse to correct, without judgment.
It starts by interacting more with people who do not have the same experiences and histories, and by exercising true empathy. When people deny that there is a journey to be made, they never even take off. And it is a journey we must make.
As of 2019, almost half of AT&T’s employees are non-white. Joshua Fields put in the hard work. But he also happened to have a friend who is Black. It starts with friendship. It starts with real relationships.
Customer experience professionals need to work for representation and access. We need to build new friendships, make intentional hiring decisions, and have more honest conversations. We need to travel. And we need to listen, so we can be the designers of future experiences for everyone.
I fully intend to work hard to do this. For our city. Our world. And for my daughter, the youngest member of The Petrova Experience. So she does not have to fight to be heard and acknowledged.