The Great Empathy Famine

I spent the weekend in California. It started as a mini-vacation—joining a friend’s 50th birthday celebration. It ended with most of the time in my hotel room with the flu.

At first, my demeanor was positive (why compound physical misery with a bad attitude) but steadily declined as I negotiated all the logistical changes required to extend my stay until I could haul my ailing self back across the country. 

Of all the service providers with whom I interacted (hotel desk clerks, cleaning ladies, airport rental car attendant), not one acknowledged my matter-of-fact revelation that I was asking for help because I was sick and couldn’t go home.

Why Is Empathy So Hard to Find?

Now, I wasn’t looking for sympathy from these folk (well, maybe a tad).  It just would have been nice if, when they learned of my situation, they had given some hint that they had actually heard what I said.  "Oh, I’m sorry to hear that,” would have completely sufficed. Or “Oh dear!” Even “Bummer, dude.” 

But no.  Nothin’.  Nada. When I finally emerged from my room, the cleaning lady had an attitude – the Do Not Disturb sign that hung on the door for 48 hours straight had kept her from doing her job.

The Alamo car check-in guy dutifully read – word-for-word – the statement on the back of my agreement justifying the additional $10.99 late return charge.  Waiving the $10 might have made me a customer for life.   Just saying, “I’m so sorry that my job requires me to tack on this extra fee under the circumstances” might have led me to consider  renting from Alamo again.

These are not unhappy or unfriendly people. Hey, it’s California. They get a lot of sun. And it’s not like they were in roles not requiring interpersonal skills — I’ll give the hotel housekeeper a pass, but the rest were front-line customer service types.  And honestly, I wasn’t being a cranky-whiny-pain-in-the-you-know-what sick person – I promise.

I’m not sure what the problem was.  Perhaps they weren’t really listening. Or they just didn’t know what to say.

Empathy Isn’t Really All That Difficult

The thing is, empathy isn’t that hard. It comes in many forms: “I’m terribly sorry,” or “I’m sure that wasn’t how you wanted to spend your weekend here!”  or even “That sucks!” (sorry, Mom, I know you hate that word).

Just acknowledge — rather than avoid — the emotional reality of the human being on the other end of the phone/service counter/board room table.
Are you uncomfortable in this touchy-feely zone? That’s perfectly normal.  But it’s also a bad excuse for doing nothing. Awkward empathy beats no empathy any day of the week.

In our Trusted Advisor and Trust-Based Selling  programs we spend a lot of time practicing empathy. Put in the terms of the Trust Equation, empathy creates intimacy and intimacy builds trust.

Empathy is imperative in professional services; listening is what drives influence.  Just asking good questions is not enough to be a good listener.

Having your client get that you got him — emotionally as well as cognitively — is what earns you the Top Listener award, which in turn earns you the right to be heard.

Next time you ask your client how her weekend was, and she mutters “Not quite what I expected,” try putting the meeting agenda aside just long enough to say, “I’m sorry to hear that” or – context-permitting – “Bummer, dude.”

And if your client ever reveals something that leaves you feeling itchy and unsure what to say, say that (“Oh … I’m not sure what to say”). Any attempt will do.

6 replies
  1. Mark Slatin
    Mark Slatin says:

    Great post Andrea.  I conducted a Trust-based Selling program in Arizona a couple of weeks ago.  One of the participants got "stuck" on taking time to connect with their buyer at a deeper level.  "The best way I can serve them is to solve their problems and make their headaches go away; I don’t get all this ‘touchy-feely" stuff. 

    It took a while to sink in for him, but after the conference, we received feedback that it not only improved his relationship with clients, it made a significant impact on his relationship with his wife.

    In reality, what makes us different isn’t our ability to fix the problem, it’s often the way we go about it that either builds trust and loyalty and breaks it down.

    Empathy does not equal agreement.  Often people fail to empathize because they think they have to agree with your position.  Like you said, sometimes it’s just "bummer" or "that stinks" that changes the conversation.

    The just-another-number feeling you got from your hotel and Alamo resulted in a missed opportunity to create a life-long customer.  Great lesson for us all.

    BTW – I’m sorry you had to go through that : ).


  2. Stewart Hirsch
    Stewart Hirsch says:

    Bummer Andrea.    Glad you’re feeling better.   It sounds like just being in the moment with you for a moment would have been enough.   And it’s probably enough for most of us.  And we all need to be reminded at least once in a while – thank you for providing that reminder!

  3. Andrea Howe
    Andrea Howe says:

    Nice job with the empathy, gents. 😉

    To be fair, since this post was drafted I have provided feedback to both the hotel and Alamo and have so far gotten an impressive response. The hotel emailed me personally after I shared my experience via electronic survey. The GM had clearly read my comments in detail and replied to every concern I had with a lot of empathy. Alamo offered to have someone follow-up me when they called to get my general feedback on my recent experience with my rental and I indicated "not likely" to the question, "Would I do business with them again?" That someone did call me within a week. I still owe him a call back, so we’ll see how that goes.

    Perhaps in the face of famine, any morsel will do. Or perhaps it’s a sign that there’s hope that our hunger will eventually subside as a result of having good feedback mechanisms in place.

  4. Shaula
    Shaula says:

    Andrea, I am always happy to see your byline appear on the blog.  I’m sorry it was such an uncomfortable experience that prompted the article.  And I can’t imagine that sitting in a hotel room away from home with the flu can be fun with the headlines scaremongering swine flu stories!  I hope you’re feeling better now.

    You know, if I had a magic wand, I think I would wish for the means to send the whole Trusted Advisor Associates crew on some really good cross cultural communication training–because I think you would find it familiar, really enjoy it, and possibly walk away with one or two relevant new ideas.

    I did a lot of cross cultural training early in my career, and much of it boiled down to addressing the question of how can you build trusted relationships when the parties are playing by separate (unspoken) rules.

    I find that in the case studies and personal anecdoes presented here (which I enjoy very much), one of the consistent themes is unmet expectations, and very often those expectations are unvoiced.

    In the case of Andrea’s story above, a little human connections when she was inconvenienced by being sick and stranded away from home would have gone a long way.

    But we really don’t know much about the other people in the story, any more than Andrea does, except that she met them in California.  But we don’t know their backgrounds, their upbringing, their cultural norms.

    Having been fortunate enough to have the occasion to meet Andrea in real life, I know she is an astoundingly generous person.  For those of us who aren’t lucky enough to be Andrea, I’ll suggest that keeping in mind that other people may be playing with a completely different set of unwritten rules is a great way to minimize or eliminate disappointment when they fail to live up to our own expectations.  

    Andrea, we need to get you more time in the South!  I’ve just left South Carolina after a 6 month visit…and people were so sweet that sometimes it almost made me cry!

  5. peter vajda
    peter vajda says:

    My experience in such situations is to take a step back, perhaps a deep breath or two and take a look at the big picture – first, the picture of me, and then my environment.

    I don’t know you Andrea, so I’m not speaking to you directly. I’m speaking to someone who has had this experience which piques my curiosity. I’m responding as I would as a coach in dialogue with a client, or a friend.

    So, about "me." The first question I always ask myself is "Why is this happening FOR me (instead of TO me)?" "What lessons is the Universe teaching me?"

    With my clients, a corollary, first, question in such situations where I seem to be reacting, is "How old do I feel?" Why? Because as soon as I sense a negative feeling/emotion, I know that a past "story" is arising, consciously or unconsciously.


    Here, my story may be: "I feel sick and when I feel sick I crave attention and want to be "held," and cared for. When no one cares for me, I feel alone, unwanted, unseen, even abandoned.  And when I feel unwanted, etc., I feel sad, angry and upset. When I feel sad, and angry and frustrated, I loop into and out of these emotions. Life is rotten, people are selfish, egocentric and only care about themselves…" etc. This story may reflect how one was treated as a sick child. Or,

    "When I’m sick, I know no one cares. I’m only an irritant to others who are too busy to take time out to notice me and my sickness. When I feel this way, and go unnoticed and feel like I’m an irritant to others, I want to scream, lash out and ask "Why do you treat me like this? Why can’t or won’t you pay attention to me?" Or,

    "When I’m sick, I’m used to everyone dropping everything immediately and rushing to my attention, to take care of me and see that all my needs are met. When my need are met I feel warm, cozy that all is well in the world. I expect this to happen when I get sick."

    There are countless other stories around illness and sickness we have in our psyche that stem from our childhood experiences. These childhood stories, with their attendant beliefs or premises come up in adult situations; they "futurize our past", that is, when we have a present experience that triggers a negative emotion, we are consciously or unconsciously recalling a past experience, and so we react the way we would as if we were a young child.

    So, for me, the "How old do I feel?" question helps me stop, inquire into and understand my reactivity here and now. It provides a greater context and when I step back and notice my reactivity, I see, first and foremost, it’s about me. Then, I can choose to react or respond from that place; the point is that I’m very conscious about my role here, who I am and how I am, and why. Who’s showing up here? Me, the child or me, the adult, and again, why?

    About the environment.

    The hotel staff and the rental car folks also have their stories. I have no idea what transpired in their life five minutes ago, five hours ago, five days ago…(perhaps someone died, they were sick, they just dealt with a rude guest or customer…). No idea. So do I choose to put them into the larger context of my experience? It’s a choice. Yes/no.

    If they were rude, disrespectful, or uncaring, I can choose to respond to that. If they were operating on "company-friendly" vs. "customer-friendly" policies and procedures, I can choose to respond to that as well.  But, the question here is, "Who is responding?" Me, the five-year old or me, the adult? And, how do I choose to react/respond, and why?


    It’s not about my being good/bad, or right/wrong. It’s about seeing the larger picture and responding from the context of the larger picture and focusing on who is showing up here.

    So, if the hotel person or car rental person did not respond to me as I expected, then I can respond to that, give feedback and choose not to use that company again.

    The company can choose to reprimand, re-train, fire, etc. the employee as they see fit and also to respond to me in like manner.


    They can effort to build trust, or not. I can choose to engage their services in the future, or not.

    Empathy here is critical. Empathy is the action of understanding, being aware of, sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another without having the feelings, thoughts or experience communicated explicitly; empathy is imagining what it would be like to be in their situation. And, for me, empathy works in both directions. How am I experiencing the hotel staff and the car rental person? Do I know what they are experiencing in this moment? Can I see this from their contextual viewpoint? Do I know what their experience is in the moment? Do I care? Should I care? Why/why not?


    Finally, the human psyche wants and needs mirroring and empathy is a form of mirroring. What we need to be aware of is how I respond when mirroring is not present. The degree to which mirroring, or the lack of it, is present in our experience- at home, at work, at play, and in relationship – dictates (again probably unconsciously) our orientation to the world and how we respond to the world in the moment – positively or negatively. Our need for mirroring, or our uncaring as to whether we are mirrored or not, can be healthy or unhealthy. It’s probably a good idea for us to be aware of who we are and how we are vis-à-vis mirroring, and here, empathy – when we get it, when we give it, or not.

    So, for me, there’s lots here. Big picture. Corner of a picture. Two-way empathy, one-way….lots.


    The larger question, for me, is why did the Universe put this experience on my path in the first place? Why did this happen FOR me?

    Just a few thoughts for reflection.

  6. Andrea Howe
    Andrea Howe says:

    Shaula and Peter, thank you both for the very thoughtful comments on this blog post. You both raise great points about the importance of (1) getting in others’ worlds (as in, *my* responsibility to be empathic the hotel and car rental staff) and (2) being consciousand taking responsibility for our own personal triggers (as in, how old was I really being in my interactions). With the housekeeping staff, whose English was heavily accented, I did stop and wonder (admittedly briefly) about their cultural norms. I’m sure there’s a lot more for me to learn on that front. I also believe that, in general, we get what we give (i.e. I give empathy; I get empathy).

    I think a key point here is precisely about expectations. I believe the onus is on anyone in a customer-facing, service-focused role (front desk clerk, rental car agent, consultant, other professional services provider) to be an extraordinary listener.  Sickness, health, whatever the scenario — when customers share information that has an ounce of emotional content, that’s our cue to first listen up, and then speak up in a way that has them get that we got them.


Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *