I used to volunteer at a web site for teens looking for help. Some of them needed help with dating or sex questions. Others were looking for relief from abuse from parents, bullies or siblings. Some just needed a friendly ear to talk to and they didn’t have one in their life.
I was there during my last year of high school and first year of college. It was a good place to me since I was a lost, shy person as well. I often noticed the people I volunteered with, other teens/early 20s folks from around the world were also looking for something. We needed the site as much as those who wrote in for help.
We would answer emails, some times as many as 50 per week. And there was a chat room on the site where I would live in the evening hours until the early morning. I was the night owl. I was a mainstay in that room and I loved being there to talk with people. I would hang out in the open chat, but if someone wanted to talk privately, we could easily move our session into a private room.
I helped a lot of people who way and often thought perhaps I had missed my calling as I studied Creative Advertising by day. But I would get so burned out from internalizing people’s problems. I didn’t know how to turn it off. I was burning out, which is why I eventually left.
How to Avoid Empathy Burnout explains the situation well.
Many helpers feel that they face a double bind. They can preserve themselves by growing emotional callouses and blunting their responses to those in need. Or they can throw themselves into building connections with their patients and risk being crushed by the weight of caring.
I was employing emotion contagion. I became overwhelmed quickly and burnout. I needed to use empathic concern.
Emotion Contagion vs. Empathic Concern
I didn’t know there were different types of empathy. How to Avoid Empathy Burnout explains two types of empathy with my emphasis added:
Caregivers need to be empathetic, but empathy is not one thing. Both neuroscience and psychology have uncovered an important distinction between two aspects of empathy: Emotion contagion, which is vicariously sharing another person’s feeling, and empathic concern, which entails forming a goal to alleviate that person’s suffering. Whereas contagion involves blurring the boundary between self and other, concern requires retaining or even strengthening such boundaries.
I consider myself to be a highly empathetic person. I’ve described it as my greatest gift and curse. And I had no idea there was another way to channel that empathy. If I had known that sooner, perhaps I would have followed a different path.
In the end, I work in customer support where I unknowingly learned and implemented empathic concern. I form goals to alleviate suffering through technology rather than through physical or emotional violence.
Forming goals to alleviate suffering is a perfect way to describe any sort of support work. There’s some level of suffering and we’re trying to remove it. It’s hard work and it takes investing part of yourself to connect with people since we’re their digital Sherpas. Our ability to empathize can make a huge difference in how we serve our customers.
The audio of this RSA short is of Dr Brené Brown who spoke at the RSA on The Power of Vulnerability. She talks about the difference between sympathy and empathy and argues that to be truly empathetic you have to be vulnerable by connecting with someone’s pain in yourself.
This short video is a fantastic primer for empathy. What is empathy? How does it differ from sympathy? Are adorable animals the best at explaining any topic?
Here are the main things I took from this short talk.
- Empathy is a choice.
It’s a choice to connect with another person by reaching within yourself to get access to that part of yourself that hurts in the same way the other person does. It’s a vulnerable choice to make because you’re opening up.
- Sympathy drives disconnection. Empathy fuels connection.
- Response doesn’t make something better. Connection makes something better.
Empathy is important in the world of customer service too. Showing empathy is a vital customer service tool. It builds the connection between you and the other person. It brings you together. Connecting with people is a great first step in starting to help them. You’re an ally, not an enemy. You’re showing them empathy, not sympathy. Sympathy starts with at least…
I know you lost all your work, but at least you still have a job. That’s sympathy.
Empathy is not always offering a response. Sometimes the best response is to say, I understand.
Showing a little empathy can go a long way to bettering your relationships with your customers, friends and family. At the end of the day, we don’t want to be alone. We want to make connections with each other. Build those connections with empathy.
I sat down on the couch tonight and just wanted to lose myself in something as I ate dinner. I found the Daily Show. It was the only thing on that looked even remotely acceptable. I’ve enjoyed it so I watched it. This is the first time I’ve seen it in months. And it struck me as they were playing a clip from FOX News.
The Daily Show is FOX News for the Left.
It’s all the same rhetoric. It’s all the same finger-pointing and laughing at the other side for being oh so wrong about everything. It’s all the same mean-spirited jokes and mocking that got us to where we are today. A nation divided against itself.
We are not good neighbors. We sit in our homes and think our thoughts and wonder how the other side could be just so wrong about things. How could they be so stupid?
It’s because we have the same problem. We each think we’re right and the other side is so clueless they aren’t even worth listening to. We shut each other out. We cling to our thoughts like grains of sand through an hour-glass. We are so sure we’re right, we never take a moment to question our own beliefs. We never take a moment to question.
We never re-evaluate our beliefs. We’re just right. We know it. And that’s all that’s important.
But that’s not important. It’s terrible to cling to ideas and never change them. Throughout our lives we learn and change our ideas about things as we gain new information. If we took the same stance we do now as children, we’d never learn to read or write. We’d never learn to drive or tie our shoes. Or eat anything other than candy three meals a day.
We learn. We take new information in and we change our attitudes. We change our beliefs and ideas. We take in more information and that changes us. We become more understanding and compassionate. We learn empathy. We learn to respect their opinions and ideas. We don’t have to agree with everything, but there might be something they say that makes sense. There might be some truth from this person who is just wrong.
The only way to find out is to open our hearts and our minds. Learn something new. Really listen to each other. Do they have a valid point? Do they believe in things you also believe in? Do you believe the same thing but wouldn’t allow yourself to see it?
We are more similar than we’ve been led to believe. We are all on this planet doing our best. I am trying to be the best Me I can be.
It’s tiring listening to the fighting and name-calling. It’s time for some tolerance and empathy. Sure, I will never agree with everyone about everything. But I am a complex person with varied beliefs, ideas and motivations.
I am not a single thing. And neither are you.
Our personalities are all made up of many factors. We’re an amalgamation of what’s around us and what we’re exposed to. We’re sponges sucking up parts of the world.
So before I sit down and listen to one extreme viewpoint, I need to recognize it as just that, an extreme viewpoint. The Daily Show is comedy. It’s faux news. It’s meant to inform as much as delight. It’s meant to rile you up and get you hating *the other side.** But that’s exactly what FOX News is doing too.
I believe that FOX News does its viewers a disservice claiming it is Fair & Balanced when in truth it’s as balanced as one kid on a seesaw. But what’s to say that viewers of that network don’t feel the same way about MSNBC or CNN. Everyone has their own biases.
They’re all for-profit networks. It’s their job to make money and they make their money with viewers. The more viewers they have, the more money advertisers will pay. And how do you get more viewers?
Create a narrative. US Vs. Them! It’s a fight now. Everyone chooses a side. We’re right. They’re wrong. Now they’ve got you. You’re part of their side. You need to tune in and see what the other side did that was so terrible.
We are all in this together. And we are all trying to do the best we can with what we have where we are. We are all trying to get through life without instructions.
Have some empathy and compassion for those on the other side from you. We are all more alike than we are different.
Time to put yourself in your customer’s shoes. Once you know the problem and are communicating, show some empathy. Don’t just say you understand their problems. Show them you understand what they’re going through. They have hit upon a problem they can’t solve and it is frustrating them and preventing them from doing their work and getting on with their day.
Even if the problem is simple in your eyes, it could be a huge deal to your customer. Today, I got an urgent call from a customer who had lost the connection to two network drives. Now, to me it is a very simple thing to remap a network drive. To my customer, her data was gone and she did not know how to get it back. She was very upset.
I arrived quickly and assured her all of her data was safe. She had only lost access to the data, not the data itself. I explained what had happened and how I was going to get it back as I worked.
I mapped the drives and I saved them as shortcuts so if they became disconnected again, she could still access her data. I also showed her how to remap the drives so she could do what I had done next time. I gave her the tools to solve the problem in the future.
Recently, I got another call from a customer who thought she had lost 300 pictures of her son from her Blackberry. They were just gone! One minute they were there, in the pictures app and the next, they were nowhere to be found.
I calmly took the phone from her and checked the settings for a media card. I saw there was no recognized card. So I removed the phone from its case, popped open the back and removed the battery to find the tiny card has slipped from its slot.
Reseating the card in its slot, I explained that her photos were most likely on the card which had come loose so the phone wasn’t able to see it. I replace the battery, powered on the phone and she customer was relieved to see her son smiling back at her.
She asked how she could backup the photos so this didn’t happen again. So I walked with her to her desk. We plugged her phone into her desktop and added the phone as a media drive. We then found the Blackberry external drive under My Computer and inside the Pictures folder were her irreplaceable photos.
I assisted her in backing them up to her computer so she could sort them and then save them.
In both cases, I immediately empathized with my customer. They were both frantic, afraid they had lost important data. I reassured them their data was safe and only moments away from being recovered. I made them feel better. I fixed the problem. Then I explained how to fix the problem should it arise again.
All that stands between feeling helpless and confident is a little knowledge. Even if she doesn’t remember what I showed her today, she can be confident in the future if this happens again it is not a crisis, but an inconvenience.
You are a trusted ally to your customer. It can be hard to remember sometimes, especially when you’ve worked in the industry a long time. It can often feel like you wear a badge that says Whipping Boy but you are the customer’s hero. You are the lifeline in the battle between man and machine. Listen to what your customer is saying but also how they are saying it. Understand their emotions and react accordingly.