How to Inspire Empathy in Your Staff

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In case you hadn’t noticed, we think empathy is a pretty big deal. In more ways than one, it’s the skeleton key to a memorable and engaging customer experience (ie: saving retail). The problem? It’s difficult to train.

In fact, we might even argue it’s impossible to train empathy (even us—a training organization that’s passionate about empathy!). It is possible, however, to inspire empathy—to motivate your employees to explore and understand their own emotions as well as the emotions of the people around them (ahem, your customers). So how do you do it?

Like empathy itself, you begin from the inside out. Cultivating empathy in both yourself and your employees is a constant exercise, but these six tips can help keep you on track:

Start from the Top.
“Do as I say, and as I do.” So said every wise manager, owner, or leader in every successful retail organization. From product knowledge to soft skills, it’s so important for the leaders of an organization to exhibit the knowledge and know-how they want their employees to cultivate—especially empathy. Intentionally consider your own empathy and spur it in your interactions with customers in order to show your employees the hows and whys of the attribute.
Hire for Empathy.
We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again: don’t hire for product knowledge or skill, hire for soft skills like empathy. You can teach any employee the stats and figures on your products, but what you can’t teach—as we’ve already said—is empathy. Incorporate interview questions into your hiring practices that identify the personality and communication skills of candidates, and choose those who you recognize as naturally empathetic. They’ll engage more genuinely with your customers.
Provide Personality Training.

In order to understand the perspectives of your customers, your employees need to understand themselves. Personality testing and training allows your employees to better understand themselves, others, and the way they interact. We’re big fans of the DISC assessment, but there are plenty of options out there (Myers-Briggs, Enneagram) that can help your employees develop their understanding of themselves and others and, as a result, their empathy.
Exhibit Empathy Within the Organization.

If your employees don’t experience empathy within your organization, they’ll never be able to manifest it with your customers. Encourage intra-team communications that foster a sense of understanding, genuine listening, and sensitivity—that might mean choosing face-to-face interactions instead of email or providing thoughtful feedback.

Replace Negative Language with Positive.
This is a part of empathy you can train. Teach employees to cull out negative words like “don’t,” “won’t,” or “can’t” that inherently negate a sense of empathy and put customers on the other side of a battle line. Instead, encourage them to incorporate empathetic phrases into their customer vocabulary like, “I agree with you,” “You’re right,” and “I understand.” It’s important that these phrases are delivered, however, with empathy so that they don’t seem condescending or passive.

You know how we feel about simulations and practice, and empathy “training” is no exception. Don’t be afraid to exemplify empathetic behavior in a training or classroom setting with your employees. Maybe you act out a scenario during a morning meeting and how it could be handled with or without empathy. Or perhaps you replay for an employee their own interaction with a customer and help them see how they could have exhibited empathy in the situation.
You can’t train empathy, but with intentionality, dedication, and heart, you can make it a part of your company culture.


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