Empathy is a word that’s easily tossed around in customer service. It’s also a standard job requirement for any professional in a support role. But more than an industry buzzword, empathy is tough to muster on demand. What’s more, science proves that it’s not possible to be empathetic all the time.

In the article “Not feeling it? Learn how to navigate the roadblocks to empathy” on our Relate site, we learn that there’s a lot that can disrupt our brain’s ability to empathize. But it’s also true that as long as we believe we can be more empathic, we can be. Studies show that our capacity for empathy is not fixed.

Here are a few things that make empathy in customer service difficult, but that agents can learn to watch—and correct—for.

1. Feeling the pressure
It may be a great Queen song, but under pressure, the brain has a hard time distinguishing between its own emotional state and the emotional state of others. If agents feel stressed about getting through their ticket queue, they’re more likely to misread a customer’s question or tone. And while a one-off response or negative satisfaction rating among many good ones may not seem like a big deal, it won’t go unnoticed by the customer. It’s their single interaction with your brand.

2. Making snap decisions
Making quick decisions also makes us less likely to accurately assess a situation, and to project our own emotions. As much as agents should be empowered to make in-the-moment judgement calls, it’s also okay for an agent to take five and do a quick buddy check or bring in a manager. In fact, it probably remains a good policy whenever stress levels are high or emotions are running hot.

3. “Stranger danger”
It’s not surprising that it’s easier to empathize with people we already know. Yet customer service professionals are in the position of interacting with strangers—who are often frustrated or upset. If that sounds stressful, it’s because it is. Biologically-speaking, interactions with strangers can elicit a stress response, releasing hormones that disrupt our ability to empathize.

Being mindful of your body’s reaction to stress is one way to help circumnavigate this. If agents can learn to recognize a stress response, they can also begin to practice stress-reduction techniques, whether that’s taking a walk, a few deep breaths, spending some time on Spotify, or venting to a work spouse before handling the next issue.

4. Distractions in the workplace
Empathy thrives when two people share an emotional state, or when the listener is feeling neutral. This might mean that an agent frustrated with an equally frustrated customer might be in a position to relate, but in general, customer service agents need to remain as neutral as possible and aware of what they’re stimulated by in their immediate work environment.

That coworker who stops by your desk and pushes your buttons? It’s a good idea to give yourself a few moments to regroup before answering an email or picking up the phone.

Differences in status, wealth and power, also impact empathy. Science reveals that it’s tough to empathize with someone who is suffering, so customer service agents faced with customer grief have to work extra hard to keep empathy at the forefront.

Mind over matter
If a variety of everyday factors threaten to—and actually disrupt—our ability to feel empathy in the brain, the great news is that a little practice helps make perfect. The first step is to believe you can be more empathic. Following that, here are a few creative ways to help strengthen that empathy muscle.

  • Enroll in a formal empathy training, like those offered by Seek Company
  • Get involved with your local community and promote a culture of volunteerism in the workplace
  • Attempt a challenging physical activity (Tough Mudder, anyone?)
  • Make time for meditation. Who knows, you might even set up a weekly hour for quiet meditation over the lunch hour.
  • Try reading fiction for pleasure—book a room, invite friends, but adhere to a strict no-talking policy

How does your team work on building empathy and reducing stress? Share in the comments below.