Empathy is the ability to recognize and understand the feelings of others and is a muscle that must be stretched and built. Everyone possesses the ability to empathize, but how strong that muscle is varies greatly. There are three main types of empathy: cognitive, emotional, and compassionate.
Compassionate empathy is what we generally understand and define as empathy in Customer Service and Leadership training. It involves feeling someone’s pain and taking action to help. Like exercise, this type of empathy requires a strong core, balance, focus, and flexibility.
Skillfully empathizing with others requires us to do four things: prepare, show up, practice, and repeat. Going to the gym every morning at 6 a.m. may be a habit that’s hard to create, but you know you would be better off doing it. The same goes for empathy. If you don’t use it, you’ll lose it.
Let’s walk through the process of actively practicing empathy.
Warm up your empathy muscle by first checking your mindset. Switch your brain into active listening mode. Do a centering exercise or mindfulness practice to help you feel ready and relaxed. Remind yourself to resist judgment and do your best on purpose.
Assess the situation and determine which empathy “machine” is most appropriate to address this conversation. Is it a treadmill situation with a simple solution or a challenging rowing machine problem where every part of you is required for a resolution?
Listen to the customer’s tone of voice and word choice, then balance your level of empathy with their level of emotion. Dial the “weights” up or down based on what’s happening and the situation at hand. Match intensity with your customer to prevent injury and unnecessary escalation.
Every conversation is different, so you will likely use different machines. “I’m sorry” and “I apologize” are the most overused forms of empathy. Instead, expand your repertoire and practice these two techniques:
1. Sound It
Use empathetic sounds such as “hmm”, “oh”, and “aww” (sometimes just a sound is all it takes).
2. Sound It and Say It
Combine the sounds above with a statement such as:
- “That’s frustrating”
- “I understand your concern”
- “That’s not good”
- “I know your time is important”
Push yourself to show interest, sound encouraging, and be supportive.
Empathy is a skill like any other human skill. If you get a chance to practice, you can get better at it.
Professor Simon Baron Cohen
It takes practice—just like in the gym, some days will be harder than others. The more reps you do, the stronger you get and the easier the exercise feels. Without practice, you’ll end up falling short or overextending your well-intentioned empathy.
Your empathy muscle can be strong and connected or weak and atrophied and it’s a choice. As with any new endeavor, there will be days that leave you sore. It can be tough (especially in the beginning) to feel sore and still find the motivation and grit to do it all again tomorrow. We get it. (See what we did there….we empathized!)
Cool down by making sure everyone’s on the same page, feeling cared for and listened to. Talk about what’s going to happen next. Offer solutions and leave the conversation with positive feelings. The more sets you do, the easier it becomes.
Flex that empathy muscle and contact us if you’d like to create a stronger, more empathetic team.
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