Decoding Empathy

Leadership Empathy Customer Service Communication

Over the last few months, ‘Empathy’ has been one of the words I’ve read, listened to, and thought about most frequently.

To give some context, it began early this year, when large numbers of employees were starting to get laid off from their jobs, due to the severity of the pandemic and its devastating impact on the industries they were part of. Companies had to make tough decisions overnight that impacted the lives of millions, and in the chaos that ensued, some forgot about the importance of empathy in their internal communications.

I was among those impacted, but have been fortunate enough to have a supportive family to help me get through some of the most challenging months in my life. I eventually found a wonderful work opportunity within a few months with SatisFIND.

A couple of weeks ago I attended the UX+ Conference virtually and despite not being a practitioner from the field, I learned a great deal about how important empathy is in the user experience design process, yet how easily it is taken for granted.

As part of my Marketing Communications work at SatisFIND, we have been redesigning our tone of voice to create a stronger synergy with our core values, of which, Empathy is one. Part of this process was engaging everyone in the organization to share what their context of empathy is in their personal and professional lives.

Given my frequent run-ins with the word, combined with the drastic shift in consumer behaviour around the world as more industries face disruption, I thought it was time to decode how employees in the service industry can be empathetic despite the bleak circumstances.

So, what is Empathy?

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines it simply as the ‘ability to share someone else’s feelings’.

While I was in graduate school last year, a professor recommended this short animated video during a lecture. To me, it perfectly captured what empathy means, and how different it is from sympathy.

How can you practice empathy?

If you watched the video I shared, you’ll see that Dr. Brené Brown deconstructed empathy into 4 insightful components. Let’s look at each of these with the perspective of an employee in the service industry:

  • Perspective Taking

As a manager, when interacting with your subordinates or team who have taken pay cuts, been laid off, or been made to accept reduced working hours, make the effort to view the circumstances through their point of view. Though the decision to take such measures may be the only possible solution for the company to stay in business longer, it still impacts the lives of employees and their families. Understanding their emotional reaction, and listening to what they have to say is the first step towards being empathetic.

As a frontline worker affected by this crisis, you may feel anger towards your employer or manager. It is important to take a step back and understand their position and the reasons for their actions. While this does not, in any way, diminish your own feelings, it acknowledges the situation that any compassionate employer would not voluntarily make these tough decisions if it weren’t a matter of survival. This may help you find understanding and acceptance of your present situation.

Given our work in the service industry, to be empathetic towards customers is equally important. People have grown more sceptical of safety. You may encounter customers who are vocal with their grievances. It is key to understand that these complaints are not personally directed at you as the frontliner. Since we are all customers ourselves, it would be easier to step into their shoes, see the situation that caused their frustration, and then respond in a manner that could possibly recover the sad experience of your customer.

  • Staying Out of Judgement

Avoiding judgement seems like an obvious rule when we speak about empathy, yet the majority of us are quick to judge one another.

Whether you are a manager, a service frontliner, or a customer, it is necessary to stay away from judging people and forming biases based on your assumptions. Judging prevents you from giving people a fair chance at showing their true character.

  • Recognising emotion in other people

Empathy is all about validating emotions, not opinions or beliefs.

It is innate in diverse teams to have members with different opinions or beliefs about certain issues or instances. Respecting the opinion of others and validating their emotions with regard to the situation at hand is one way to show empathy and avoid conflict. People would like to be seen for who they are, and this is why diversity and empathy must go hand-in-hand.

For managers who may have been given the task to communicate the difficult decisions made by the organization that affect their employees’ jobs, you may find yourself at the receiving end of a range of varying emotions, from rage to despair, and emotional outbursts. It is vital to acknowledge the impact of the decisions on the lives of your staff and understand their emotional reactions to be able to show them compassion and care.

Likewise, when a customer is disgruntled with the service, food, or hygiene at your restaurant, it is your responsibility as a frontliner to listen to their concerns with humility and find the best possible solution to recover their trust. Being defensive, diminishing their concern, passing the blame, or ignoring it are the worst ways a frontliner could react. The customer sharing the complaint needs to feel heard and would like to know how you could help resolve the issue.

  • Communication

To effectively communicate with your team members, colleagues, managers, or customers, a sincere interest in what they have to say is paramount. Communication begins with active listening and being receptive to the views of others. Trust, humility and respect help us better understand those around us, which in turn, allows us to communicate in a fair and inclusive manner. This builds stronger relationships between the company and its employees, and between frontliners and customers.

To have empathy is to have a human connection.

Has practising empathy been a challenge for you during this pandemic? SatisFIND created a free upskilling program for businesses and employees in the service industry called Reboot, 21 short micro-learning videos to help employees mentally and psychologically prepare for business recovery.

For those who are looking for employment opportunities, this online resource aims to help them upskill and be job-ready.

Check out SatisFIND’s Reboot S1 E4 on Practicing Empathy and share with us if it helped you in any way.

Akanksha Ghildiyal

A passionate and proactive Marketing, Strategy, and Hospitality professional in the week | An experimental baker, home-chef, binge-eater, and binge-watcher over the weekend