It’s Emotional – Listen to the Feelings Behind the Words

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Thank you for joining me on this third installment in my series “It’s Emotional – Creating an Unprecedented Team and Customer Experience in the Pandemic.” This series is designed to offer tools to manage your emotions as well as support the emotional journey of your prospects and customers.

A couple of installments back I talked about my dislike for how the word unprecedented is being used in the context of this pandemic. Typically, these days unprecedented implies no one has ever encountered a pandemic before and that history offers no guidance on how to cope and prevail. This week I am bristling at the way the word empathy is being used in the context of the pandemic. Quite frankly I love the word empathy and I’ve used the word regularly since I finished my doctorate in clinical psychology back in the late 1980s.

What’s bothersome about the word’s use these days, is that it’s thrown around as if everyone knows how to be empathic and as if it’s easy to demonstrate this component of emotional intelligence (EQ).

In my book The Airbnb Way, I spend a lot of time providing context for empathy and explaining the challenge of putting it into action. Given the brevity needed for a post, I will provide the cliff notes version of empathy and a simple strategy for practicing and flexing your empathy skills. The word empathy has been in common use for about a century and likely derived from a German word, which roughly translates to “feeling into.”

Empathy is essential for effective service delivery and is defined as a key component of EQ. In an article titled, The Ultimate Guide to Emotional Intelligence to be Happy and Successful in A Brain-Dead World, Prakhar Verma highlights research showing strong links between empathy, EQ, career success, personal development, confidence, better relationships, and happiness. In its simplest form, empathy is an awareness of the emotional state of others.

At an elevated level, empathy involves attempting to assume the frame of reference of another person so you can understand their feelings, thoughts, and attitudes. Cognitive neuroscientists have shown that when we feel pain, we activate the same neural pathways that are activated when we observe others who are suffering. Let’s look at three key elements needed to effectively demonstrate empathy:

  1. Assume the feelings of others differ from your own
  2. Hypothesize about the feelings of others without judging them
  3. Check your hypotheses

I will go through each of these empathy components quickly.

Assume others may feel different from you. The golden rule is a great starting place for empathy, as “do unto others as you want others to do unto to you” grounds us in humanity. However, the golden rule doesn’t paint the full picture of empathy. Let’s pretend I’m someone who has a minimal fear of COVID-19 and that I don’t want people to serve me wearing masks. The golden rule might suggest I shouldn’t wear a mask. But that’s where hypothesizing comes in. Empathy requires us to ask, “How might I treat others based on how they may be feeling?”

In the case of customer fear levels, we need to suspend judgment and hypothesize what each person might be feeling. For example, if we infer from someone’s behavior or non-verbals that they are uncomfortable as they enter our business (even though we are perfectly comfortable) we should act empathically by saying something like, “How can I make you more comfortable?” or maybe give extra physical distance. We then listen and watch for disconfirmation or confirmation of our hypothesis. For example, they may say, “No, I’m quite comfortable.” or “Wow. Thanks for noticing.”

Empathy is a skill…it doesn’t happen just because we use the word. So:

  1. Assume others may feel different than you
  2. Hypothesize about what others might be feeling without judgment
  3. Check your hypotheses

I welcome the opportunity to talk about how you can strengthen your team’s empathy skills. Just reach out to me and we’ll talk about your tactical approach to empathy building.

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