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Can Empathy Be Learned?

Customer experience professionals recognize the powerful impact emotions have on determining whether a customer has a positive or negative interaction with an organization.  Medical science has proven that 95 percent of our mental activity is subconscious. We feel before we think and we make decisions primarily based on our emotions.

Given that emotions drive needs, wants and desires and are the primary triggers for most customer interactions, forward-thinking companies are embracing the value of integrating genuine empathy—the capacity to recognize and resonate with emotions that are being experienced by another person—in their customer experience strategies. Those who have the ability to step into someone else’s position to understand their experiences, feelings and point of view are inviting the opportunity to earn a customer’s trust and subsequently, their loyalty.

Empathy is a natural impulse and the innate ability for humans to understand the emotional states of others.  Newborn babies, only a few days old, will cry when they hear other newborns cry. Even toddlers who haven’t yet learned to speak will try to help adults in accomplishing tasks.

People who are born with no empathy and are completely self-oriented are generally referred to as psychopaths. They are considered aberrations in society because they are completely immune to the feelings of others and will rarely do anything to undermine their own interests.

There is a “more or less” quality related to empathy when determining whether empathy can be learned. The human capacity to recognize the feelings of others is related to the ability to see oneself in another. People tend to be more empathic to those most similar to themselves in culture and living conditions.

Dr. Guy Winch, in his popular blog The Squeaky Wheel, provides a method to experience empathy. He recommends putting ourselves completely in another person’s shoes to help examine their point of view. Winch imagines what it is like to be a call centre agent, sitting in a small cubicle all day facing a computer that dictates almost everything they need to do and say. He visualizes frequently dealing with frustrated and angry customers, being called horrible names and not being able to respond in kind for fear of losing his job.

Conducting this type of empathy exercise helps employees realize that being kind and respectful when presenting a problem might elicit feelings of relief and gratitude in the customer towards the company representative.

Celebrated civil rights activist Dr. Maya Angelou once said, “People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

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