What are the most overlooked steps of empathy? Let’s start with a story. Imagine this. A marketing leader and 4 other team members are in a meeting discussing what they can do to increase their product’s reach. Naturally, the topic of Customer Experience comes up. The group, then, begins to walk through their marketing funnel, taking their customer’s perspective as they go.
After 45 minutes of focused, empathic discussion, which included numerous statements beginning with “If I were the customer I would…”, the team has developed a great idea on how to improve the customer’s experience. The leader is sure the idea meets both customer needs and product goals.
A few minutes later, a team member speaks up. He points out how, after thinking about it further, the change they’d come up with actually makes him feel alienated and distrustful of the company if he were the customer.
The experienced team leader takes a moment to consider the team member’s point of view. She realizes he is right. They need to go back to the drawing board.
Later on in reflection, the leader asks herself how she missed this point. Being a progressive leader she’s aware that empathy is key to making both the employee and customer experience better. She’s even taken not one, but TWO, workshops to help her practice her skillset. Plus, she took the perspective of the customer as the team stepped through the customer’s journey.
What is Missing with Empathy?
We see these types of cases all the time. Empathy is the hot topic of the day. Articles, training sessions, and workshops aimed at strengthening empathy muscles abound; yet many leaders are unable to fully master the practice. Why?
Because all the formal empathy training in the world can’t help if leaders don’t understand two often overlooked, but critical, steps necessary to practicing empathy. These components necessitate very little time and resource investment. Yet, without them, empathy practices will crumble.
The Most Overlooked Steps of Empathy
Enter the often overlooked, but critical, components necessary for practicing Empathy.
Empathy Step 1: Set your experiences and perspectives aside.
This means you need to think differently, or better yet, not at all. Instead of trying to take the perspective of another, start with creating an unbiased mind for yourself. No formal training necessary, just your willpower and mental control.
Empathy Step 2: Gather additional information.
Once you’re able to sustain an unbiased perspective, gather information about how customers or employees think, feel, and behave in their own shoes. Understand what they are going through without feeling defensive or judged. Try to just be in their experience as an unbiased observer.
The Unspoken Sides of Empathy
The main reason these two keys to empathy practice go unnoticed has to do with how empathy is talked about in the business world.
Often times empathy is described as putting oneself into the shoes of another. What isn’t usually mentioned, is that to step into the shoes of another, we first need to step out of our own.
Here is what happens with many who try, but fail, to be empathetic with their customers or employees. They work hard at putting themselves into another’s experience or at taking another’s perspective, but because they haven’t stepped OUT of their own experience first by putting their own needs and wants aside, they fail to fully embody the thoughts and feelings of others.
The consequence are a lot of inspiring, seemingly “customer-focused”, sessions that result in unresolved issues and stagnant programs.
The other misnomer about empathy is that it can be practiced without gathering any new information or insight . Perhaps in more personal interactions in which people live together or have known each other for years, this can be the case. However, when trying to practice empathy with customers and employees, gathering more information is a must.
George Bernard Shaw exemplifies this idea further when he says, “Do not do unto others as you would have them do unto you—they might have different tastes.” And, as this article summarizes, “Empathy is about discovering those tastes.”
Note well, gathering new information doesn’t equate to a robust, expensive research effort. Many times, it’s simply about taking the time to actively listen hard, and then to open yourself up to different ideas and points of view.
Once you’ve mastered these two critical steps, there are a myriad of methods available to help you get started with, or continue, your empathy practice.
The Misconception of Practicing Empathy
Although the team in our story may have felt like they were practicing empathy, they neglected these two key components.
Setting aside their own perspective about the customer experience and gathering additional insights around how customers think, feel, and behave would help them step through the process with a lot more empathy for their customers. Without these two prerequisite components, the team stepped through the customer’s experience thinking about how THEY, the team, would feel if they were the customer.
The main difference being in our story the team took the perspective of the customer when, in reality, they should have gained it.
Gaining vs. Taking Perspective
Consider this excerpt published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.
“Increasing interpersonal accuracy seems to require gaining new information rather than utilizing existing knowledge about another person. Understanding the mind of another person is therefore enabled by getting perspective, not simply taking perspective.”
Taking the perspective of another isn’t empathy. Gaining that perspective by first setting your own aside, and then opening up to and gathering new points of view; these are the key components needed to practice empathy effectively.
A New Perspective on Empathy
Now, consider this story. You are a marketing leader and you’ve gathered your team in a room to discuss what you can do to extend product reach.
One team member suggests putting out a quick survey to customers, and coupling this survey with a few qualitative customer conversations, all in order to assess the customer’s current experience. The team breaks to gather new insights.
Several days later, the team reconvenes with their results. The survey and conversations weren’t statistically valid, nor were they rigorous and costly, but they DID provide new information. With this in hand, you and the team step through the customer’s experience of the current marketing funnel notating gaps and highlights opportunities as you go.
After 45 minutes of focused, empathic discussion, which included numerous statements beginning with “We heard from the customer they would feel…”, you’ve developed a great idea that you’re sure will meet both customer needs and product goals.
A few minutes later a team member speaks up, relaying that he is confident in the idea because you’ve aligned with your customers’ needs, felt their pain and joy, and are no longer guessing at how to meet customer expectations.
Instead, after successfully employing empathy, you are primed to exceed them.