There was a funny story I read many years ago set during the “Management By Walking Around” fad, so named because it encouraged managers to leave the cocoon of their office and informally interact with workers to build personal connections and learn more about the business. A humor writer – it might have been Dave Barry – skewered the resulting awkward interactions when Manager Bob bumps into Worker James in the hallway:
Manager Bob: “Hi James!”
Worker James: “Hi Bob”
Manager Bob (consulting a 3×5 notecard in his hand): “How is your wife Janice and your three children Christine age 8, Jeremy age 6, and Allison age 3?”
Worker James: “Umm…I’m single and don’t have any children”
Manager Bob (irritated): “Not according to this 3×5 card in my hand!”
Connecting with people requires much more than a 3×5 card of course. Often it requires empathy.
We hear the word empathy a lot these days, which means the ability to sense the feelings and emotional state of another person. Empathy is different from sympathy in that it is more active. A sympathetic person feels sorry for someone during time of loss, but an empathetic person is able to orient their viewpoint from someone else’s perspective across a range of situations.
While we humans are prone to living in our own emotional bubbles during the best of times, living empathetically during this time of quarantine is even more challenging and more important than it ever has been.
One of my annoyances is when people describe someone who is loud and prone to exaggeration as being “salesy.” In fact, I have found the best way to a completed deal starts with a salesperson temporarily setting aside their own struggles – their personal financial need to generate commissions, the stress of quotas, and the competitive desire to “win” – and truly enter into the struggles of the deal influencers and economic buyers.
In sales, empathy means understanding the fear felt by your customer. And since humans are more focused on future loss prevention rather than current benefit attainment, understanding your customer’s fears is vital. It means you understand the emotional and organizational barriers she is facing. You “feel” what it must be like for her as you present your solution.
In marketing, empathy might mean developing customer “personas”: fictitious people who exemplify your target customer. These personas have names, faces, demographic information and a back-story. Companies can be so attached to their personas that they are commonly referred to in conversation (“What would Janice think about this?”). Some companies even reserve a chair in their meetings to represent the persona and remind the meeting participants about Janice’s presence. To create a vivid persona requires empathetic listening to the best customers you have today and the best prospects you hope to win. It is both head and heart.
In product development, empathy can mean getting out of your “happy path” fantasy where all users do what you expect of them and encounter no unexpected barriers. Anyone who has watched a UX study or seen how people interact with their product in the wild understand that not everyone has the same skills as the members of your engineering team. Empathy gets product developers to put their ego aside and build real solutions for real people.
In a more general sense, empathy is a cornerstone of effective leadership. Employees can spot the difference between a leader who says they are concerned with employee wellness during this time from a leader who actually is concerned. There’s a popular quote (attributed to various people) that captures this well: “People may not remember exactly what you did, or what you said, but they will always remember how you made them feel.”
People sense when you’re able to get out of your daily business pressures and make a human connection because you are interested in making a human connection – not because your management handbook instructs you to “make a human connection.”
You might be able to fake it a little bit, but eventually people will know if you’re simply reading from a 3×5 card.