This post is part of our Monthly-ish Tips series.

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A recent customer service experience reminded me why real empathy is so much more effective than rote empathy, and why we should all choose our words mindfully when we’re attempting it. The lessons in this case stretch far beyond the help desk to anyone in a services role.

Quick back story: I had an ongoing issue getting a seat assignment for a series of international flights. A first world problem, I know. It was frustrating nonetheless. And time-consuming. Multiple online attempts failed, and the first phone call only resulted in one of three seats getting locked in. So, I called again.

I started out in a pretty good mood because, let’s face it, there are many more important things to get worked up about in life. Then the 39 minutes that it took to get the three seats sorted took a toll on my happy demeanor.

My outlook wasn’t helped by a well-meaning but poorly trained customer service agent. I tried to briefly explain my issue and its history at the beginning of the call: “I’m calling for seat assignments, which I’ve tried to get multiple times and ways for several days with no luck.” I said it nicely, not snarkily, I swear. To which the agent replied, “No problem.”

I heard her tone more than her words at first. She was trying to help. Cool.

Twenty-eight minutes later, when she insisted that the only way I could secure the seats was to go online, I repeated that their booking system hadn’t been working for days. I had her wait while I tried again. When I read her the error message that the system once again returned, she replied, “No problem.”

Only now we did have a problem. Two problems, actually.

The first problem was that she had repeatedly missed opportunities to empathize throughout our time together. From the get-go, she failed to convey that she had actually heard and appreciated the possibility of my frustration. My “multiple times,” “multiple ways,” and, “over several days” fell on deaf ears.

The second problem was that her words, “No problem,” were completely invalidating. The impact was subtle at first because her tone implied a caring attitude. But each time I presented a problem, she in essence told me it wasn’t one. And over time she sounded rote and superficial, which negated the tone thing.

What really chaps my hide here is that empathy isn’t all that hard. Really. I didn’t need paragraphs of soothing therapist-like commentary to assuage my first world frustrations. A little something at the start of the call would have gone a long way, like a simple and genuine, “Oh dear” or, “That sounds like a lot of trouble.” Later on, “That’s frustrating” would have worked wonders—and probably for both of us, because I’ll bet she wasn’t any happier to be spending so much time with me than I was to be spending so much time with her.

I so dearly wish that more customer service people got taught how to simply acknowledge the emotional reality of the human beings on the other end of the phone/service counter/table/whatever. I wrote about what I called The Great Empathy Famine over a decade ago, and yet here we still are.

I actually wish this for people, not just customer service people.

We spend a lot of time practicing empathy in our workshops because it creates intimacy in relationships, and because empathetic listening drives influence. Having your client get that you got him—emotionally as well as cognitively—is what earns you the Top Listener award, which in turn earns you the right to be heard.

Genuine empathy in everyday interactions is still so rare that it’s a real differentiator. We’ll call that good news if you’re looking for ways to stand apart in the new year.

Make It Real

This week, commit to the Everyday Empathy practice. Empathize with the grocery store clerk, the drycleaner, the newspaper vendor, the babysitter, and more. The stakes are low, the environment is target-rich, you’ll make a difference for someone who usually gets complaints rather than kind words, and you’ll get a great empathy workout in the process.

Learn More


Read about the role that empathy plays in leadership, from our friends at Trusted Advisor Associates, or brush up on the details of Everyday Empathy in Chapter 6 of The Trusted Advisor Fieldbook.


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Andrea Howe

As the founder of The Get Real Project, I am the steward of our vision and our service offerings, as well as a workshop leader and keynote speaker. Above all else, I am an entrepreneur on a mission: to kick conventional business wisdom to the curb and transform how people work together as a result. I am also the co-author, with Charles H. Green, of The Trusted Advisor Fieldbook (Wiley, 2012).