By Maria Geokezas, VP of Client Relations at Heinz Marketing

Can Empathy be taught?  Empathy has always been a necessary part of a successful sale.  Heck, I believe it’s a necessary part of being human, having happy relationships, being good at your job and leading a full life.  Before COVID-19 happened, empathy was taken for granted.

Now, however, in the midst of the pandemic, with the economy struggling and businesses feeling the pressure to keep selling, empathy has become the star of the show, the central tenant to every sales strategy.  Every marketing and sales strategy starts and ends with “sell with empathy”.

First, let’s start with the definition of empathy.  Merriam-Webster defines empathy as “the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner”.

More simply, in To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus Finch says “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view … until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”

Turns out there are several techniques that can be used to train what researchers call “cognitive empathy”.

  1. Practice listening. When talking with another person one-to-one on the phone, or attending a Zoom meeting, how much of your time is spent listening verses rushing to contribute to the conversation?  When we have conversations going on inside our heads, we are not actually listening to the person who is speaking.  Practice listening through role-playing.  Set up each person with another for a one-to-one, face-to-face conversation.  One person talks at a time and the other person listens until their partner is done speaking.  There should be no interruptions, no verbal or non-verbal signals given until the speaker is done talking.  The person playing the listener role does their best to understand rather than listening to reply.
  2. Repeat back. This technique uses paraphrasing and feedback to determine if the person who was listening accurately understood the person who was speaking.  Again, this can be done in a role-playing situation by setting-up mock conversations.  Once the speaker completes their story, the person who is listening paraphrases what they think they heard.  Then, if the listener didn’t capture the speaker’s sentiments accurately, the speaker relays the conversation again until the listener understands.  This technique relies on both roles listening carefully to the other.
  3. Look for commonalities. This exercise can be done without a partner.  Sit alone and think about the different people you come into contact with during the course of a typical day.  It could be the mail carrier, the guy who bags your groceries, the barista who makes your coffee, or a co-worker you don’t know well.  Make a list of the things you may have in common with these people.  For example, they may root for the same sports team, they may like the same restaurants, their kids may attend the same school.  Finding commonalities brings people together and is a pathway to a more empathetic perspective.
  4. Stoke curiosity for others. When you are waiting in line or waiting for a friend to show up, instead of burying your nose in your phone, look up at the people around you.  In your mind, make up stories about what the people around you are doing, thinking and feeling.  Use body language, dress style and actions to build the stories.  Empathy grows when we expand our focus to the world at large, rather than getting caught up in our own stuff.

For more ways to teach empathy, check out the wikiHow post on How to Teach Empathy to Adults.

Some sales methodologies are more conducive to integrating empathy than others.  As a sales leader, the trick is finding the right methodology for each team member and then coaching them on how to build empathy into their process.

What techniques have been helpful in injecting more empathy to your sales approach?