It was a classic scene involving an angry customer. The man was red-faced and shouting. And he didn’t calm down one bit when the service clerk said ‘I understand, sir.’ In fact, the customer shouted even louder as he retorted ‘No! You obviously don’t understand.’

From my safe vantage point a few meters away, it was obvious what had gone wrong here. The service clerk had used an empathy-building technique without feeling any empathy. She sounded as though she was reciting a phrase from a textbook. And this made the customer even angrier.

It’s a situation which is becoming more and more common. When businesses give their staff scripts for dealing with difficult situations, they’re setting them up for failure. Humans are very sensitive to incongruence – or a lack of alignment between the words spoken and the tone they are delivered in.

This is why excellent communication skills courses teach you to think on your feet, not to deliver stock responses. If the service clerk had been trained in this way, she’d have known how to build rapport help the customer calm down quickly. She would have genuinely acknowledged the customer’s feelings, instead of using a patronising generalisation.

Empathy Sympathy

After all, the statement ‘I understand’ is almost guaranteed to infuriate. This is because it reflects absolutely no understanding at all. Someone who genuinely understood the customer would have reflected back his feelings, using an empathic statement. For example, the service clerk could have empathised with the customer by saying ‘I am sorry you’ve had such a frustrating experience with our service, sir.’

The point about successful empathic statements is that they accurately reflect someone’s feelings. They contain feeling words, which the other person recognises as an acknowledgement of their emotions. You can learn the basic structure of an empathic statement from a book. But you need to combine emotional intelligence with that structure in order to convey real empathy.

Want to know more about the art of showing empathy? Read Eleanor Shakiba’s book.