The use of empathy by staff is often a direct attempt to shut the customer up. Customers can sense this and that is why they frequently react negatively. Phrases such as “I hear what you are saying”, “I know how you feel” or “I understand what you mean” are of little value if what staff actually mean is “are you finished?”. If by using this type of ‘empathy’ our aim is get the customer to stop speaking, customers will see though the sentiment and get even more upset. It’s common to hear attendees on our conflict management training course say that they shy away from using any type of empathy because it can frequently backfire. If used in the wrong way or for the wrong reason it indeed will backfire.
Empathy is often attempted in order to close down a difficult conversation. It’s not surprising staff wish to fast forward to the end and get the discomfort out of the way. The problem with this approach is that a disgruntled customer is keen to explain their position and want to be properly listened to. Upset customers are not really concerned that staff may hear this complaint frequently.
If staff do take the time to listen then genuine empathy is effective and helps to de-escalate the conflict. Staff often struggle in that they know empathy is important but they don’t always know what to say. In our conflict management training we ask delegates to consider what they would say to a friend or relative who:
Suffered a bereavement.
Just had the flu.
Failed an important exam.
Lost their job.
It is unlikely they would say “I hear what you are saying” or “I know what you mean”.
More likely they would say something like: “That is a sad loss for you”, “I can understand that must be very disappointing”, “you must have felt awful”, “it must be a worrying time for you”. There is a world of difference between the two approaches. If a customer outlines the reason for their grievance we can reflect that back to them. For example: If a client is complaining about having to call 3 times to get through one might say – “I understand that having to call 3 times to get to speak to someone is very annoying”. This is a clear indication that the client has been heard and understood.
Empathy only works if it is part of a genuine attempt to listen and understand what the customer is trying to convey. If the customer is having difficulty getting their point across and/or they are being talked over or are having their points rebutted they can see empathy as just platitudes. Likewise any attempt at empathy during a heated argument will not work. Put empathy in its place – during or following your attempt to actively listen and fully understand the customer.