Empathy Is Not Just a Mindset; It Is a Learned Skill
Adam Toporek Keynote Speaker of Customers That Stick®
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Empathy Is Not Just a Mindset; It Is a Learned Skill

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Empathy requires more than a shift in mindset; it requires a specific set of skills

As a customer experience strategist and customer service trainer, empathy has always been a cornerstone of our approach to customer experience and service.

Customer experience is difficult and is defined more than anything by human emotion. Having teams that understand how to both have and demonstrate empathy is essential to delivering Hero-Class® service.

Listening to much of the talk about empathy in recent weeks, I’ve noticed that a key piece of the empathy puzzle is often missing, a crucial aspect of helping others become more empathetic.

Most of the discussions I have heard lately have focused on shifting mindset, simply trying to have more empathy by attempting to understand the other person’s perspective, their journey, and most importantly, their feelings. 

This openness and willingness to understand others is a crucial first step to empathy.

However, once a person commits to this mindset, they are confronted with the very real challenge of how to approach this change.

For, empathy requires not only a shift in mindset but a specific set of skills that help facilitate the changes in perspective and understanding that lead to empathy.

Empathy requires not only a shift in mindset but a specific set of skills. Click To Tweet

Let’s look at thee crucial skills for facilitating empathy:

  • Countering Instinctual Reactions. Part of the ways both implicit bias and confirmation bias distort thinking and impede empathy is through their automaticity. They are ingrained reactions based on beliefs, both conscious and not. Someone observes the action of another, then automatically creates an answer for what it means without trying to really understand where the other person is coming from. Counteracting both implicit biases and cognitive biases is not easy. Getting people to interrupt their automatic reactions and to open themselves to an alternative explanation is not something that the average person will be automatically good at just because they are told to “have empathy.”
  • Practicing Self Awareness. Understanding not only one’s biases but how their experience might be drastically different than someone else’s requires self-awareness. One needs to understand how to approach self evaluation. What are the questions one needs to ask to better understand what their beliefs are, where they come from, and how those beliefs might be completely changed if they used a different lens to try to understand the person in front of them?
  • Asking Effective (and Nonjudgmental) Questions. One thing I’ve seen in the training room is that many people find asking questions difficult, at least when the subject is delicate or emotionally charged. What do I ask? How do I ask it so it doesn’t seem like judgmental? How do I ask it so they know I really care? Questions are crucial to empathy, because you can’t properly give or demonstrate empathy if you don’t know what it is you need to be empathetic about. 

Of course, the above ideas do not encapsulate everything that is needed to be better at empathy; but they are three big rocks that, if not innate, must be learned to be good at empathy.

At the heart of the above three ideas is an old principle from Stephen Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Seek first to understand, then to be understood. In fact, I often use Covey’s famous story of the screaming kids on the subway in our trainings. 

A group of kids were screaming and acting rambunctious one morning on a subway car, and the father didn’t seem to care. Covey got in a huff, assuming the worst, and said something to the distracted father. When Covey learned that they had just left the hospital and that the kids’ mother had just died, he had an immediate change of perspective and heart. 

This story perfectly captures the links among automatic preconception, listening and understanding, and empathy.

The openness and skills to have and demonstrate empathy are distributed much like any other characteristic in a population. Some live their everyday as open-hearted empaths, some lack the capacity to feel it at all, and the great majority are in the continuum between. 

For most, empathy is not a switch you can flip. True, it requires an opening of the mind and of the heart, but it also requires a set of sometimes unfamiliar skills.

If we want to increase empathy in this world, we have to help people acquire the skills to both hear the stories of others and to understand how to quiet their own stories long enough to do so.

About the Author Adam Toporek

By Adam Toporek. Adam Toporek is an internationally recognized customer service expert, keynote speaker, and workshop leader. He is the author of Be Your Customer's Hero: Real-World Tips & Techniques for the Service Front Lines (2015), as well as the founder of the popular Customers That Stick® blog and co-host of the Crack the Customer Code podcast.

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