28 September 2017
There was a time when I had very little empathy. Then I stumbled into a way to learn it, and I’d like to share that method with you, as I think it may significantly improve your relationships with backers, customers, and people in general.
Way back in 2007, I was just starting a new job as the Director of Operations at a facility located within a local university when an employee approached me with a problem. They were confused and frustrated, and this manifested in them yelling and crying.
Because of what I perceived to be an extreme reaction to a minor problem, I had a really hard time relating to the person. The more emotional they were, the calmer I became. I prescribed a simple solution, told the employee to try it, and moved on.
As you can tell, I had very little empathy in this situation. Instead of trying to see through the other person’s eyes or walk in their shoes, I almost relished in how calm I was compared to how irate they were. By doing this, I put more distance between us instead of trying to close the gap, whether or not I agreed with their stance.
This wasn’t a one-time occurrence. I had several employees who would respond similarly when they were stressed, frustrated, or had a difference of opinion. I couldn’t understand why they were letting their emotions get the best of them, and that lack of empathy prevented me from getting to the heart of the issues.
Then one day on a whim, I tried something different: I pretended to care. My intent wasn’t all that good–really, I just wanted the person to calm down. So I acted like I was relating to them.
This superficial approach yielded unexpected results. As I pretended that I cared, I realized that I did actually care all along. I had genuine compassion and concern for these people all along, but I was letting our different personalities and approaches to problem solving get in the way. As that wall came down, suddenly I was able to see the situation from their perspective.
It took time to hone this method, to grow empathy where there was none. But it made me realize that empathy isn’t an innate characteristic that you either do or do not have; rather, it’s a skill that can be learned, even if you have to fake it until you make it.
Why does empathy matter for Kickstarter creators and entrepreneurs? Part of it is simply having better relationships with backers and customers. They want to feel heard and respected. But the other part is that I’ve learned so much from customers when I’m willing to relate to them instead of putting up barriers between me and them. I’m far, far from perfect at this, but I try.
Now, in the above example, I described how you can become more empathetic with someone you care about. What about someone you have no connection to? Say, a complete stranger who has just posted a comment about some aspect of your product they don’t like. It’s easy to ignore or get defensive when that’s how someone chooses to interact with you.
Here’s a trick: Pretend the person is your best friend. Like, actually picture your best friend in that person’s place, and respond to them in the same way you’d talk to your best friend.
In the moment, this will result in a better interaction than if you view the person as a stranger or a troll. But in the long run, if you do this over and over with lots of different strangers, you will start to develop true empathy for them. You’ll no longer be pretending–your care and compassion will be real, and many of these potentially negative interactions will turn into productive conversations. A potential customer may become a long-term fan.
I know this is a somewhat nebulous topic, but what do you think? Do you consider empathy to be important for business? How have you learned to be more empathetic?