September 30, 2016

Customer Empathy Means Listening. REALLY Listening.

Design team meeting at Push10

In the creative space, we talk customer empathy all. the. time.

And for good reason! Being empathetic toward your audience is just good practice. It’s good humanity, smart business, and our brains are wired to do it. So what does empathy have to do with listening? In her CreativeMornings and TEDx talks, passionate Philadelphian, journalist, and über-listener Ronnie Polaneczky discusses the power of deliberate listening. She says that “real, deliberate listening is the bedrock of empathy”.

You may think you’re a great listener. Lots of people do. And superficially, you may be right: You look people in the eye, you don’t interrupt when they talk, and you parrot back what they say so they know you’re paying attention. Good on you! But that’s the funny thing about it: Even good listeners are still doing it a little wrong. That’s why being deliberate – listening actively rather than passively – is such a game-changer. Here’s how to do it.

Get Over Being Right

We humans really love the ego boost that comes along with being right. But the best listeners in history – those people who make you feel like you’re the only person in a crowded room and that every word you say is positively fascinating – don’t give a damn about that.

They don’t spend the whole time you’re talking formulating their own thoughts about whatever you just said. They haven’t thought about whether you’re right or wrong. They’re not waiting for a pause so they can interject their 2 cents. The best listeners are genuinely interested in what you think and why you think it. When you let go of being right, you open yourself up to the real connection you’re after: the one that will ultimately help you create a brand message that resonates with your audience and make your product, service, or company irresistible.

Suspend Your Judgments

Admit it: You judge people. Don’t be too hard on yourself – we all do it. Turns out we’re wired for that, too.
That’s why genuine, deep customer empathy can be such a challenge. For some people, suspending judgments comes naturally; for others, it takes serious work. But it’s worth the effort, and here’s why: We all have limited real estate in our brains. Our attention is a finite resource.

When you’re trying to listen to someone else’s thoughts, true empathy requires focus. Watch their body language and feel their emotions. Hear the things they say, but also sense their meaning. Understand where they’re coming from and give their words context. If you let your brain fill up with judgments, there’s no room left for listening, watching, understanding, or sensing…which means there’s no room to build empathy. After all, you can’t very well walk in someone else’s shoes if you’re too preoccupied to even put ‘em on.

Relish The Gray Areas

Black-and-white thinking is for the birds. (Actually, birds can see in more colors than humans can…but that’s for another post.) Instead of trying to fit your interactions into discrete buckets, try playing in the space between. The gray areas, Polaneczky says, are the places where wisdom, nuance, growth, and learning happen. We think customer empathy lives there, too.
You learn an awful lot by digging past the black and white. Let’s say a customer reams you out on Facebook because they ordered a package from you and, due to something entirely outside your control, it didn’t arrive when you said it would.

It’d be easy to get angry and defensive – hell, they’re wrong! This isn’t your fault! Who do they think they are, anyway?! Instead of filing the whole situation under “Nightmare Customer Interactions”, try approaching it from a less rigid perspective. Try hearing them out. Maybe they’re going through a tragic set of life circumstances, and they could use a little patience and understanding. A little humanity. And if your company can be a source of humanity, you’ll really stand out from the crowd.

So… Did You Hear Any Of That?

Aristotle, wordsmithin’ son-of-a-gun that he was, summed it up pretty nicely: “Educating the mind without educating the heart is no education at all.” Deep, empathetic listening is an education of the mind and the heart. It changes the listener as much as the listened-to.

Ronnie Polaneczky stumbled upon her epiphany of deliberate listening coincidentally, but you don’t have to. You have the chance to learn from her example and actively seek out the areas in your life where your listening skills could use a little boost — whether it’s with friends, kids, customers, or coworkers. Once you start looking, you’ll be shocked at the huge opportunities you never even saw. And if you’re having trouble hearing what your customers have to say, reach out to us! We’re always listening, and we’d love to be your ears.