Here is what I presented at CXTalks last Tuesday, May 22. I also included an audio track if you'd prefer that experience. Enjoy!
How many of you meditate? Daily? Successfully? I have been trying to do that. It’s so hard, but it’s a great way to help me be present.
A meditation that I’ll do to ground me uses my senses starting with sight, then smell, then touch, then listening. I’ll sit in the same place to meditate, so my experience each time is more or less the same, except for listening.
The sounds I hear always change. It’s like I’m having a type of conversation with my apartment and developing a relationship with my space, always discovering something new.
Inside my apartment I’ll hear the air vents humming or the dishwasher running, and sometimes outside of my apartment I’ll hear the birds singing, dogs barking in the hallway, construction, or my neighbors doing something.
Sound waves can travel very far, giving me a lot of information…but it’s not like I’m asking for it…it just comes.
When I’m being present and allowing information to just come to me, it’s the same experience as when I’m listening to understand rather than listening to respond in a conversation. There is a natural curiosity when you listen to understand that can change the tone and immediately help you to become a better listener. I think it’s because I’m focused on gathering information, like the discovery phase of a project. You don’t yet have any answers. You’re curious, learning, and accepting the information that’s being provided. Sometimes I’ll look at this as a gift someone is sharing with me and this really shifts my perspective about what I’m receiving.
But let’s contrast that with listening to respond where you’re focused on explaining your thoughts and your message. One scenario where I’m particularly guilty of listening to respond is when I’m brainstorming with a team. I’ll get an idea and I’m so excited to communicate it that I blurt it out, interrupting everyone. I think I’m helping the idea process, but I just communicated through my actions that I’m more concerned about sharing my idea than listening to what others have just contributed. It’s not intentional, not mean-spirited, but that’s what I just did.
When we interrupt others, we communicate through our actions that we’re not really concerned with what they have to say. Our ideas come first.
I think sometimes we often do this in companies – we get so focused on making sure our message is heard and we’re noticed, that we forget to be curious to listen to customer feedback.
Lynn Borton hosts a talk show in Virginia about curiosity, called Choose to be Curious. She sees listening as an way to be open to learn new perspectives. When you are learning, typically you aren’t judging the information you receive as right or wrong. It just is. The earth is the third rock from the sun. Water is wet. My client would prefer if I offered an online course so he could attend when he wants. I can see how the phrase “the customer is always right,” is connected to this idea. I would challenge that it’s not about the customer being right or wrong, or winning or losing, I mean, who wins a conversation? But the challenge the business owner has is to not be defensive and consider the problem through the customer’s perspective and create a solution that solves the problem.
Julian Treasure is a listening expert and has given a number of TED talks about it. He suggests that another challenge of listening is that you can’t control the information you get from someone else. It’s messy – like relationships. Structured flows and experiences and linear thinking won’t necessarily help you establish a conversation with your customer. They don’t give you a neatly packaged group of facts. You get what they give through banter, trial and error, choosing the wrong button.
With all of the information styles we have today, I wonder if it is time for us to expand our definition of conversations beyond verbal or written communication. A conversation is really an interaction between two people or entities that build a relationship….it could be through an online app, social media engagement, a focus group, survey, purchase activity, or a support center call. This means that listening should include observing. And we shouldn’t forget that actions speak louder than words.
Our customer’s communication comes through metrics and results. That’s why we should approach them with curiosity – it’s a way for us to listen. But sometimes in business we get so focused on the bottom line or we want to prove that we were right that we often miss what our customers are really telling us in that data. We overlook trends that may not fit our narratives or contradict our understanding of our customers. We miss key insights that get us to customer experience nirvana, or empathy.
But empathy can’t just emerge from stats. It really starts inside your organization. We all like to think that our employees love our customers, but do they? I mean, do they talk about them behind their backs? Do they see them as dumb? Is respect there? Does your team think your customers are generally smart and capable people who make great decisions?
If you listen to your team and observe their actions you can discover if your team even likes your customers or do they feel contempt for them?
You see, contempt to compassion is a sliding scale. With contempt you believe that your customer got themselves into their unfortunate situation and probably can’t help themselves get out of it even if they wanted to. If you feel sympathy, you feel bad for someone for getting into that situation, but you aren’t up to the task to help them solve their problem. If you feel empathy, you can relate to your customer’s situation and understand their emotions and feelings. There is a desire to help. If you feel compassion, you don’t care how your customer got into that situation, but you can understand how they are feeling and want to help them solve their problem.
It makes you wonder if we should instead be focused on compassion rather than empathy….but that’s another story.
Empathy is defined as “the act of coming to experience the world as you think someone else does” which is the problem with empathy in a nutshell. This is why some researchers say that empathy is not “the cure”. There was a study in Harvard Business Review where marketing managers made “empathetic decisions” for their customers, but the decisions they made reflected their own desires and didn’t consider what the customer really wanted. Psychology researcher, Paul Bloom, wrote a book called The Case Against Empathy. He mentions a few ways to look at empathy – for moral purposes, for connection, or to understand someone else. But at the raw definition, if you have empathy for someone who is feeling bad, then you feel bad too and is that useful? To him, this why compassion is better.
But these researchers all have a point. There are problems with empathy.
And it breaks down in the definition – no two people have the same shared experience, and no one really knows what someone else is feeling, which is why connection with other people is hard.
This is why I propose a different definition of empathy - an attempt at understanding someone else’s emotional situation by relating through a similar physical and emotional event that occurred in their own life.
Here’s an example….let's say your best friend's dog passed away and your friend was very close to her dog. Let's say your pet hamster passed away, but you weren't particularly close to your hamster (it was one of 20 anyway). You can't say with any validity to your friend that you understand what she is going through. Sure, you both lost a pet, but you both didn't lose the same type of relationship with that pet. But let's say a couple of years earlier, you lost a cat and you were very close to that cat. You could say to your friend that you understand what she is going through. You both lost a pet, you both lost a close relationship with your pet, and there may be some differences between what you are both feeling because it was a different type of animal.
When you are trying to connect with someone through empathy, you can’t simply recall the same exact situation in your life to understand how that person feels. You review similar life events and find one that seems to have the same emotional severity.
You’ll get to this partly from listening, partly from emotional validation and partly from respect. The connection comes from the shared emotion – the event is almost irrelevant in the connection.
So how does this apply to developing empathy for customers?
Listening is the most powerful tool you have available as a business person. But to use listening and connect with empathy, you need to:
- be present
- be curious and not have expectations
- acknowledge that relationships are built on conversations
- redefine what a conversation is
- go inside out – see if your team can be empathetic to your customers
- connect through listening, validating emotions, and respect. It’s about the shared emotion around the event – not the event itself.
Next time you are looking for that great insight or connection with your customers, take a break, maybe meditate, get present, look through all of your data, and listen with curiosity to discover something new in your observations. You may find that golden insight you’ve been waiting for.