Stop Leading with Empathy
Updated: Jul 31, 2020
In my recent podcast with Statflo, Scott McArthur and I discussed the importance of the customer experience in the COVID-19 world. During this conversation and others I’ve recently had with business owners across Canada and the United States, leading with empathy has been the directive. From the outset of this pandemic, sales organizations have been forced to re-evaluate their message and take the idea of “agility” to a completely different level. The focus has been on “how” to engage with customers and support business demands, while not appearing tone deaf to the COVID-19 situation. A month ago, this strategy of approaching conversations with total empathy was the right game plan. However, after speaking with leaders in the industry and observing the daily changes we’re all facing, I’ve realized that we must shift our strategy once again.
I’m hearing from individuals at all levels of business who have recently had to take a few days off to rest because they find themselves depleted of energy. I, too, have days where I feel like I’m living a pre-pandemic schedule that had me up at 4:00 am to catch an early morning flight across the country to deliver an in-person group session (when, in reality, I’ve woken at a decent hour, taken 25 steps to my home office, and spent the day at my desk attending meetings and coaching sessions). I don’t feel like I should be as tired as I am, so why am I?
The answer lies in how empathy can affect our sympathetic nervous system, which prepares our body for the fight or flight mode we experience in stressful situations. I think everyone would agree that COVID-19 has us all living in a heightened state of stress. Whether we’re living alone confined to a home office, surrounded by family 24 hours a day, or working on the front lines as an essential worker, we’re all consuming information about the pandemic every single day, sometimes every hour of the day. Our ability to relax and rejuvenate our minds and bodies is severely challenged with this influx of uncertainty. Our stress responses are being chronically triggered, which is leading us to a constant state of fight or flight—whether or not we can acknowledge this in the mirror when we’re getting ready for work in a pair of comfy sweat pants and a Zoom appropriate shirt.
With that in mind, take into consideration the influence empathy has on our mind and bodies when used on every single sales call. We pick up the phone and speak to a client, ensuring we’re as empathetic as possible. We hear their individual account of how COVID-19 is affecting their business—and perhaps even their personal life—and we find ourselves drawn into their story. We genuinely wish to establish a real connection with the client, and we do all that we can to avoid any interpretation that our call to them is simply a push to sell a product or service. More than ever, our calls now need to be about quality, not quantity, and we’ve come to believe that in order for this authenticity to come through the phone, we should connect, engage and—if the opportunity presents itself—sell with empathy.
The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines empathy as the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experiences of another. When we lead with empathy, we’re not simply listening to someone else’s story. Our minds and bodies are actually experiencing their emotions with them. This can cause us to feel overwhelmed and even burdened by experiences that aren’t our own, and when coupled with the elevated stress levels we’re already feeling, this can lead to burnout.
So what is the next strategy? I believe we need to shift our approach toward compassion.
The dictionary defines compassion as the sympathetic consciousness of others' distress together with a desire to alleviate it. The key difference between compassion and empathy is that, where empathy has us actually experiencing the emotions of another, compassion allows us to be sensitive and aware without feeling as if we’re living someone else’s experience. When we are compassionate, we also have an innate desire to help—and it is here where we can actually boost our energy levels.
What gets us excited about our job? What do we thoroughly enjoy doing? By tapping into this, we can access a source of energy that will counter the efforts our fight-or-flight response is having on our minds and bodies. This process will be different for each of us, and this is where I would encourage sales managers and business owners to revise their expectations. What we expected of our sales teams 8 weeks ago, 4 weeks ago, even 4 days ago, has radically changed. We can hope for the same results, but in reality we need to embrace change as the only certainty during this pandemic. Now is the time to re-evaluate our teams. Do we have the right players in the right positions? I can’t imagine we would find Tom Brady as wide receiver or Wayne Gretzky in nets. As talented athletes, they may have some success in those capacities, but it’s evident they would triumph in positions that would enable them to utilize their particular skills. We must allow our teams the time to realign themselves to the new demands of the business. Perhaps someone wasn’t a quota-breaking rep before, but they excel leveraging a specific product. Have them lead in that role moving forward and reorganize the rest of the group. Are we leading by example and treating them—and even ourselves—with compassion? Are we encouraging our teams to double down on the strengths that brought them to the job in the first place?
Be compassionate with everyone, especially ourselves! Before picking up the phone, we need to be intentional about what we are good at promoting on that call. And before we start dialing, we need to ask ourselves—and be prepared to ask the client—this essential question: “How can I help?”
Depending on the products and services we offer, the industry we’re targeting, even the geographical territory we’re calling, we’re going to get different results. Some calls may turn out great; others may not. What’s important is the impression we’re imparting to the client when we hang up the phone as well as the support we’re giving ourselves. No matter the outcome, positive or negative, if we are being consciously compassionate, we will find ourselves in a much happier and refreshed state than if we lead with empathy and get drawn into someone else’s experiences. The truly interesting thing about this approach is what research has shown us: internal motivation drives productivity. If we allow our people to do a bit of soul-searching and have them be honest with what works individually for them, it will be sure to garner results down the road, whether on our next call or in three months when a customer calls back to reignite a conversation because they experienced a positive connection with our company during a time in which they were struggling.
Here are a few key items to remember:
Put your oxygen mask on first. When we fly, we’re taught that in an emergency it’s vital to the safety of everyone to help yourself before helping the person next to you. This analogy could not be more applicable to the situation we’re facing today. Compassion with ourselves will lead to compassion for others in any situation.
Be open and receptive. Validate the feelings of others. Let them know that we are here and ask how we can support them. We must be sensitive and aware while remembering not to plug ourselves into their story.
Focus on our strengths and what brings us joy. When we’re doing something we love, our energy tanks are full. We need them full to offset the drain in energy caused by the other stressors in our lives. Our team members will feel the results, our clients will see the results, and, ultimately, our business will flourish.
BONUS Tip: Cardiac Coherence
Something I use daily to reduce my stress levels and help ease the gas pedal on my nervous system is a breathing technique called Cardiac Coherence: 5 breaths in, 5 breaths out, for 5 minutes. If possible, do this 3 times a day. There are several apps out there that can assist you with this practice, so check them out! As a wise person once told me, sometimes you just need to breathe!
President, PONO Learning
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