Can you teach empathy at work? Yes, and here’s how
Now more than ever, empathy should be a core mindset in all your customer communications and interactions. But what if your people don’t seem ‘wired’ for it? Can empathy be taught in the workplace?
Yes. But it takes a focused effort tailored to specific employees groups, using engaging activities and continual reinforcement.
How do you know if employees need empathy training?
Think about your own experiences as a customer. Have you ever contacted customer service and felt like you were talking with a robot instead of a caring person? Or received account update emails full of confusing jargon that left you more concerned than reassured. Or been turned off by marketing that focused only on what a company does instead of what you need and care about?
These scenarios are surprisingly common and may sound familiar in your own company. But let’s put it into context. People at work are not uncaring; they’re just busy. They’re focused on details and deadlines, processes and performance. It may not occur to them to infuse empathy into their communications, actions, and decisions. More often than not, employees just have not had it modeled for them to see the impact empathy can make.
Or maybe your company could be full of compassionate people with good intentions, but your marketing and customer communications (written or spoken) don’t use an empathetic tone and language. Often employees are just too close to the business to see things through the eyes of a customer. They might unintentionally be creating the perception that your company is unfriendly or doesn’t care about customer needs.
The good news is that empathy can be learned — and empathy training is the gift that keeps on giving.
With the right learning strategies and best practice examples, employees can deepen their understanding of how to approach work from an empathy mindset. Empathy training infuses fresh perspectives that can empower your organization to bring more value into every communication and customer touch point.
What are the best techniques for teaching empathy to employees?
Whether your organization needs an infusion of empathy or your communications need a tune-up, there are best practices you can put to work right away. For over 15 years, our Beyond the Arc team has helped companies build empathy-driven approaches into their culture and communications.
We’ve seen what works, and it usually centers on applying these three fundamentals:
1 – Clarify it – demystify how empathy works 2 – Demonstrate it – show empathy in action 3 – Practice it – provide empathy-focused job aids
1 – Clarify it – demystify how empathy works
This is a good starting place because it helps to clear up misconceptions about empathy. First, empathy is often portrayed as ‘putting yourself in another’s shoes.’ But that doesn’t mean what you would do in their situation, as that’s colored by your own personal biases and experiences. It’s about imagining and understanding what the other person feels in their situation.
Another key factor about empathy is that it’s never one-size-fits-all. There isn’t one perfect “empathy brush” you can paint on all your communications. You could risk sounding ingenuine with certain customers or employees, and your efforts might backfire. Instead, always consider the specific person and situation, and the various needs, concerns, attitudes and behaviors that might be in play.
It’s a persona-based approach that can help internal teams better understand each other and the customers they serve.
2 – Demonstrate it – show empathy in action
Once you’ve established a conceptual foundation about empathy, you need to make it real for employees with practical examples. One of the most potent empathy training tools is a ‘before-and-after’ revision of your communications.
You don’t name names or make anyone feel bad (after all, this is about empathy, right?). Simply extract snippets of content that could benefit from improvement, and revise them with empathetic language and tone. Then show people how the original compares with the refreshed revision.
In our training workshops, we gamify it with interactive exercises. Stepping through examples in a learn-by-doing approach encourages employees to spot things that seem less or more empathetic and emotionally appealing. In this way, before-and-afters nearly always give people an “Aha” moment.
For the greatest learning impact, use real-world examples that are customized to a specific employee group. Tap into a range of communications from different channels and situations such as your most challenging or high-impact customer letters, website content, and marketing collateral. Look at internal communications like call scripts, process documents, and leadership emails.
Taking a more holistic approach has two key benefits. It helps you identify where you’ve hit the mark perfectly so you can apply that style of language and tone to other communications. And it enables you to establish a consistent brand voice that drives engagement and strengthens relationships.
3 – Practice it – provide empathy-focused job aids
In a typical organization, people are all over the map in the “soft skill” of empathy. Some may have a real gift for it, some may need only a subtle shift, and for some it may take more effort to break free of old ways of thinking and writing.
Be patient, but don’t expect it to happen on its own. You need to give people tools to practice putting empathy into action.
Worksheets. In both training and follow-up, it works well to give employees a worksheet with ‘before’ examples and include blank spaces where they can fill in their own ‘after’ language. Everyone can then share their version and get ideas and encouragement from each other.
Quick Reference Guides. To reinforce learning going forward, provide a cheat-sheet guide of model language examples relevant to their work. For instance, include a few before-afters as a reminder, and best practice verbiage they can apply to their own written and verbal communications.
Team sharing. As people grow their skills, they grow their confidence, and you want to celebrate that. In huddles or staff meetings, encourage employees to share how their empathy mindset is enhancing their work.
Who should receive empathy training?
While everyone in your company would benefit, you should provide empathy training courses to two main audiences. First, any employees who have direct customer contact, like your customer service or customer success teams. But, you also want to go beyond service. You also need to include anyone who writes customer communications and marketing, or internal communications.
Empathy can have a big impact in all those areas, so be sure to include people writing customer emails, account letters and notices, and marketing collateral. Also anyone who writes or uses call center scripting, and even internal procedures.
And be sure to include managers in empathy training. In fact, it’s mission critical to gain buy-in and engagement from group leaders and executives. Employees are more likely to embrace empathetic approaches when they see leadership setting a believable and ownable example.
Empathy is not new, but it’s finally getting the attention it deserves. 2020 amplified the need for businesses to communicate with empathy to both customers and employees, and the brands that do it best will come out ahead.