Couldn’t we all benefit from putting on a mindset of empathy? At work, at home, in our relationships, in the comments section on social media—a little more empathy could go a long way in those spaces.
Empathy is defined as “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.” Empathy encourages us to believe the best about the people and circumstances in front of us. Of course, this is always easier said than done, isn’t it? When it’s someone we know, or a situation that’s clear, or a person who is obviously struggling, empathy isn’t so hard to demonstrate. But when it’s a nameless customer being rude, or a coworker losing their patience, or a new client who requires a lot of hand holding, it’s easier to get frustrated and write them off than it is to choose empathy.
Andy Stanley, pastor and founder of North Point Community Church in Atlanta, once shared a great message on empathy that’s helped me choose it in my more difficult moments. In it, he described the way empathy works. He explained that it’s easier to criticize people when we’re far away—when we don’t make the effort to get close and understand. But when we take a step closer to really lean in, listen, and try to understand, we’re making a move toward empathy.
I don’t know about you, but this is definitely true for me! It’s easy to sit far away and criticize. To be judgmental or make assumptions about politics, or sports, or parenting, or even the way our CEO runs the company. From a distance, criticism is simple. We can assume the worst from that seat. But when we get closer, we see how nuanced people and their circumstances really are.
Author Steven Covey tells a story in his book, 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, about his own experience with empathy that has stuck with me since I read it.
“I remember a mini-paradigm shift I experienced one Sunday morning on a subway in New York. People were sitting quietly – some reading newspapers, some lost in thought, some resting with their eyes closed. It was a calm, peaceful scene.
Then suddenly, a man and his children entered the subway car. The children were so loud and rambunctious that instantly the whole climate changed.
The man sat down next to me and closed his eyes, apparently oblivious to the situation. The children were yelling back and forth, throwing things, even grabbing people’s papers. It was very disturbing. And yet, the man sitting next to me did nothing.
It was difficult not to feel irritated. I could not believe that he could be so insensitive as to let his children run wild like that and do nothing about it, taking no responsibility at all. It was easy to see that everyone else on the subway felt irritated, too. So finally, with what I felt like was unusual patience and restraint, I turned to him and said, ‘Sir, your children are really disturbing a lot of people. I wonder if you couldn’t control them a little more?’
The man lifted his gaze as if to come to a consciousness of the situation for the first time and said softly, ‘Oh, you’re right. I guess I should do something about it. We just came from the hospital where their mother died about an hour ago. I don’t know what to think, and I guess they don’t know how to handle it either.’
Can you imagine what I felt at that moment? My paradigm shifted. Suddenly I saw things differently, and because I saw differently, I thought differently, I felt differently, I behaved differently. My irritation vanished. I didn’t have to worry about controlling my attitude or my behavior; my heart was filled with the man’s pain. Feelings of sympathy and compassion flowed freely. ‘Your wife just died? Oh I’m so sorry! Can you tell me about it? What can I do to help?’ Everything changed in an instant.”
My heart was filled with the man’s pain.
What an incredible picture of empathy and the drastic course change it creates in our mindsets and behaviors. We are all walking through pain of some sort—as employees, as coworkers, as bosses, and as customers. As someone once told me, all of us have either just walked through a crisis, are in a crisis, or are about to walk through a crisis. Empathy is the balm—the simple healing agent—we can share with someone else whose shoes we haven’t walked in but whose face we have seen and have the charge to serve.
Think about the things that typically frustrate you with a customer. When they’re losing their patience with you over the phone,
When their kids are making a mess at your table,
When they don’t read the email you sent with all the information,
When they show up asking for a refund without a receipt,
When they get frustrated that their food isn’t ready yet,
When they complain about not being seated in an exit row,
When they arrive late for their appointment.
In those moments, you have a choice. Are you going to see the customer’s situation through the lens of assumption and judgment? Or are you going to choose to believe the best? Are you going to jump to conclusions? Or are you going to try to understand what’s happening below the surface?
Choosing a mindset of empathy will help you make the best choice—the choice that will help you ultimately enhance the customer experience where you work. And this isn’t just crucial for the way you treat new customers; it’s significant in terms of retaining and recovering your current customers.
Customer recovery is the term we use to talk about what we do to keep a customer when a situation goes wrong. It’s a make-or-break moment when a mindset of empathy really goes to work. In stressful situations, our sympathetic nervous system kicks in and that fight or flight mentality comes to the surface. It’s our natural, automatic response in those circumstances to either get defensive or run away. But when we’re dealing with customers, those approaches won’t cut it.
Because customers are people, just like us! And what do we as people want more than anything when we’re frustrated? To be heard. To be understood. To be helped. The desire to fight or flee, while natural, isn’t a path to meeting our customers’ needs. It denies the problem, diminishes the issue, gets defensive about the cause, and deflects the solution.
But empathy? Empathy gives us room to listen, to pause, to understand, and to ultimately resolve the issue. And choosing a mindset of empathy will help prepare you to handle those tough moments. It will help you serve and keep your customers who may be loyal fans of your brand.