Imagine a monkey that is angry. Now imagine you can monitor his brain. You see what fires and what doesn't. Ok, you've got it mapped. Now imagine that he sees another monkey who is upset. And before you know it, the same parts of the brain are firing off – as if the monkey were mad himself.
According to researchers in Italy, this is what they saw and established as a mirror-neuron system. That primates have neurons that fire, regardless of whether they're experiencing the activity (and emotion) or witnessing it.
Arthur Costa and Pat Wolfe write, “Cells in your brain allow you to read another person's mind. Humans not only have the ability to judge others' intentions and feelings, they often know what the other person is thinking. This ability is called empathy.”
Those cells they're talking about? They are mirror neurons.
And they allow us to be empathetic.
True Confessions About Empathy
I like to tell people that I was born without empathy. That my DNA doesn't contain what's needed to have them. And that's ultimately why I married my wife because she had tons of it. And for the most part, at home, that's true.
If my son falls off a chair, my wife and daughter jump to his side and ask him how he's doing. They cuddle. My first reaction: “That's what you get for playing around in the chair.” Not one bit of trying to put myself in his shoes or feel his pain.
But I'm not that way at work. Empathy isn't something I feel, it's a strategy I leverage.
Leveraging Empathy as a Strategy
The core part of empathy is listening. Not listening while you're prepping to say your next thing. Not listening with an attitude. I'm talking about listening and, at that moment, trying to get into their shoes. Trying to experience the position they're in so that you can then start communicating effectively.
Because most of a person's communication is physical – using their body and not their words – watch them.
It's why I love Zoom or any other tool that lets you have a video chat instead of just a phone call. It's why I like meeting in person. I want to watch what's going on for someone when they're talking – whether they're upset, stressed, or happy.
In customer support…
If you're on the end of a conversation where someone is upset and expressing it, are you coming across as a partner looking to help them navigate their challenge? Or defensively as a vendor who just wants to get off the phone, or paid?
People don't always need to have their way.
Sometimes they just need to have their way considered.
Clients can tell the difference between your script and your actual empathy. When they know they're getting thru, they'll often calm down. And that's a good thing!
I'm horrible at interrupting people. Do you do that? That doesn't scream empathy. I have to work at letting people get their entire statement out. And then the next words out of my mouth need to be ones that demonstrate I've heard them.
A lot of times that simply means paraphrasing back what I've heard. But it also means articulating predictions of how I imagine they must be feeling. When I do that, I get a better connection.
And a better connection helps develop the trust needed to find a way forward in deals.
Do you find yourself in a position where a customer doesn't want to pay their final bill because they think they'll lose all leverage? It's because they don't feel connected. The trust isn't there. And empathy is what builds it.
The Trick to Getting Empathy Right
In every one of those cases, the trick to getting empathy right is developing the skill to shut yourself up inside your own brain. Learn to develop the ability to be internally silent.
When you get quiet, those mirror neurons you have inside you can be heard. Your own brain has the clues it needs to figure things out. You just need to be quiet enough for it to bubble up to where you can hear it.