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The Key to Empathy is Sincere Focus

How to show empathy…

That is the question.

Nobody needs to be taught the concept of empathy. That’s because we’re all born with it (and need it). It’s like any muscle on your body – you don’t need to be taught to have a bicep, you already have one. What you need is to be taught how to use it.

The subgenual anterior cingulate is the part of the brain where empathy lives. It lights up when we see, receive, or show empathy and boosts the oxytocin running through our system. And oxytocin feels good. 🙂

When people insist they just aren’t very empathic, they’re similar to someone who doesn’t exercise their muscles saying “I’m just not strong.” Of course you’re not – but that’s not because you weren’t born strong or empathic, it’s because you aren’t exercising your God-given ability to be strong and empathic.

We could talk about the concept of empathy until we’re blue in the face, but again, we don’t need that. Instead, we are going to talk about HOW to practice showing empathy. This is all about tapping into that part of your brain that yearns for connection.

Sincere focus is the key to empathy.

(NOTE: Empathy is a skills we teach CSRs and Technicians in the 30-Day Challenge. It’s 10 minutes of online training every day for 30 days for your team. If you’re looking for specific, how-to steps to WOW your customers that your team can learn in just 10 minutes a day, this is for you. Check it out here.)

The Key is Sincere Focus

I use the word “sincere” intentionally because it’s easy to focus out of a sense of obligation even though we don’t really care. You might be “focused” on your spouse or coworker when they tell you what’s going on in their lives, and you may even be able to prove it by repeating back what they’ve said. But that doesn’t mean your focus in sincere.

Sincere focus is when your ears and your heart are in the conversation. You’re both hearing and caring, genuinely.

What Gets in the Way of Sincere Focus?

Let’s address some things that get in the way of sincere focus & empathy:

  • The myth of multi-tasking: “multi-tasking” is not being good at doing multiple things at once. It’s being bad at focusing on one thing at a time. Especially when we have the option to perform a task or connect with a person. Doing both might seem efficient, but it makes the person you’re with feel like garbage. Don’t do it.
  • Technology: it’s ironic that technology has enabled us to “connect” in a virtual sense with more people than ever, yet we are also more disconnected than ever. Having 2,000 friends online may have been a badge of honor back in 2009, but not today. Dunbar’s number is still only 150. Any more real relationships than that and we spread ourselves too thin.
  • Stress: while empathy gives us a healthy boost of oxytocin, stress kicks our cortisol levels into high gear. And cortisol is not something that you want to live with all the time. Cortisol is good for getting out of a dangerous situation, but it’s not good for day-to-day life. The good news is that when we consciously choose to show empathy and give ourselves that boost of oxytocin, it actually suppresses cortisol levels and reduces stress. The best cure for worry is to reach out and serve!
  • Hunger: if you’ve ever watched Survivor, you know what I’m talking about. When our body’s basic physical needs aren’t met, it’s difficult to be empathic and connect with others.
  • Poor nutrition habits: be careful not to indulge your hunger with poor eating. That won’t make things any better.
  • Fatigue: get some sleep. The rest of us thank you.
  • Hate: Harboring negative feelings toward others is an obvious detriment to empathy. When we’re full of hate, people often go out of their way to show apathy and actually cause harm to others. The key is to exercise your will power and perform an act of service instead. It will soften your hard feelings.
  • Being “busy”: ahh yes… perhaps the biggest culprit of getting in the way of empathy in the business world. “I’m too busy.” “I can’t get any important work done because human beings keep interrupting me.” Sure, we need time and room to focus on getting tasks done. But tasks should never become more important than people, and we should never sacrifice empathy for the sake of efficiency. If you’ve got time to scroll through Instagram today, you’ve got even more time to empathize.
  • Believing I’m not capable of showing empathy: it all starts with belief, and if you don’t believe you are capable of being an empathic person, then of course you’re not going to practice it. I have coached many customer service people who don’t like when we teach about empathy because they say “I’m just not like that… I’m just not a soft, caring person.” That’s a harmful belief to claim, both for yourself and others. We need empathy. We need relationships. Don’t believe me? Watch this.

How to Show Empathy with Sincere Focus

Now that you know what gets in the way of sincere focus and empathy, let’s take a good look at what promotes it. For that, we’ll look at eye contact, tone of voice, word choice, and emotional understanding.

(NOTE: Empathy is a skills we teach CSRs and Technicians in the 30-Day Challenge. It’s 10 minutes of online training every day for 30 days for your team. If you’re looking for specific, how-to steps to WOW your customers that your team can learn in just 10 minutes a day, this is for you. Check it out here.)

Eye Contact

“The light of the body is the eye,” and you can often see and feel what another person is seeing and feeling by looking them in the eye.

In her TED Talk “How to spot a liar” Pamela Meyer points out that we can fake a smile with our mouth, but we can’t fake it with our eyes. The eyes are truly the window to the soul.

You can strengthen your “empathy muscles” by making eye contact with people and trying to understand what’s on their mind. Often, eye contact by itself can take an interaction from level 3 to level 10 in quality. It sends a message that you genuinely care, and that even though you don’t understand everything now, you will do your best to make this person feel understood.

Tone of Voice

Mom: “Say hi Johny!”

Johny: “Hi…”

Mom: “Oh, say it like you mean it!”

Two people can say the same thing (“Hi” for example) and be taken in completely different ways. That’s the power of tone of voice.

When I was in 4th grade I ran for Student Body Vice President of my elementary school. To elect student body officials, all the squirmy students filed into the auditorium to hear short speeches from each candidate for each position. After hearing the speeches, students checked the box next to the name of who they wanted to elect.

I was nervous. This was the first time I had gotten up in front of an audience. I can still remember the butterflies in my 10-year-old tummy and the bright lights shining on the podium where I stood. I delivered my speech from beginning to end without forgetting my name or sounding like a babbling idiot. It was a success, I thought.

That was until Steven (whose last name escapes me) gave his speech. He did so with conviction, enthusiasm, and power! It was riveting to listen to him. On paper, our speeches weren’t very different. From the podium though, it was night and day. I gave my speech with the intent to survive, to not embarrass myself. I didn’t give to win though. As a result, my tone of voice was bland and not entertaining. Steven’s tone of voice though was entertaining, and he won.

The reason I tell this story is not just to rub some salt in that 14-year-old wound… it’s to communicate the power of tone of voice.

Much like body language, your tone of voice says a lot. It can communicate empathy or apathy, interest or disinterest, enthusiasm or annoyance, and optimism or pessimism (to name a few). Use your tone of voice to show empathy.

Word Choice

Words matter… a LOT. So choose carefully.

I believe that the effective use of words is the greatest super power on earth.

When we’re in emotional conversations, it’s tempting to spout off the first thing that comes to mind. But remember, we’re talking about the key to empathy being sincere FOCUS. We ought to take a moment, pause, and FOCUS on coming up with the right words.

Think of your words as a bridge. They close the gap between you and the person in front of you. You can think of your tone of voice as sturdy materials that make your bridge stronger.

Emotional Understanding

This has already been touched on a lot here, but the importance of it can’t be overstated.

When you understand not only a person’s words and circumstances but their emotions too, powerful change happens.

This is where sincere focus becomes absolutely critical. It requires a clear and open mind, the mindset that empathy is needed, and that this moment, this conversation, and above all this person, is important.

Sometimes, it takes time. We can’t rush a genuine connection. But the better you get at it, the faster it will come.

Last week I was working with a CSR that didn’t feel like she was receiving the full benefit of coaching. The frustration in her voice was obvious, and the lack of performance improvement even more so. This was the prime opportunity to practice empathy.

I started off by asking about what was on her mind as it related to coaching. I wanted to know how we (and I as her coach) were falling short. I assured her before the feedback that I wouldn’t be offended, and that it was important for me to know how she felt.

Lucky for me, the feedback was priceless. Right there on that 30 minute coaching session we were able to talk through concerns, talk about what the roots of the problems may be, and decide on a path forward that would be a win/win for both of us.

The important thing was not to merely understand the surface level concerns she had, but to also understand the emotions that were being caused by those concerns.

And that takes sincere focus.

(NOTE: Empathy is a skills we teach CSRs and Technicians in the 30-Day Challenge. It’s 10 minutes of online training every day for 30 days for your team. If you’re looking for specific, how-to steps to WOW your customers that your team can learn in just 10 minutes a day, this is for you. Check it out here.)