A Little Empathy Goes a Long Way

Today I had to drop off 7 heavy boxes of books at the UPS store, and something interesting happened while I was there.  I grabbed a dolly and went to my car and loaded up my boxes.  As I was wheeling them inside, I saw a lovely red-haired woman in a business suit precede me into the store.  There was a grim look of determination on her face.  I dropped the dolly off in the corner and went to ask the storekeeper if it was okay to leave the boxes stacked on the dolly or if he wanted me to remove them all in case someone else needed the dolly.  I wasn’t able to get the man’s attention because the red-haired woman was yelling at him.  I didn’t want to leave my boxes in someone else’s way so I decided to just politely wait until I could get his attention.

The woman was angry because a package she was expecting to arrive on a certain day did not arrive.  Or so she thought.  As it turns out, the UPS store HAD her package on time, but when she called in to find out if the package was there, an employee told her it was not.  She claims she lost a $2,000 sale because of that mistake and she was really upset.  What ensued was a typical exchange I’ve seen over and over again.  She was blaming them for not doing their job, and the shopkeeper was defending himself and his employees.  Bottom line, neither of them was really listening to the other.  But I was. 

The more the employees were defending themselves, the angrier the woman got.  Finally she started threatening legal action against them for negligence.  The shopkeeper was trying desperately to explain how things worked in his store and that he could not be held responsible for her lost business.  I decided to step in because I saw what the shopkeeper was missing.  What this woman wanted was some empathy and understanding.  She was feeling fear.  He wasn’t picking up on that, so he was responding to her words, not her emotions and thoughts.  Here is what I said:

Me:  Excuse me, I think what happened here is that you feel frustrated because as part of your business you need to rely on other people to do their jobs as efficiently as you do yours, and since you cannot control the actions of the store employees you can’t count on that same attention to detail that you give your clients.

Her:  (turning to look at me fully)  Yes, that’s right.  This client came to town and spent $4000 on clothing from me, but he usually spends closer to $6,000.  He wanted to see a certain catalog but I didn’t have it because the people at this store said it hadn’t arrived yet.  But they were wrong and I lost business because of it. 

Me:  You care very deeply about your clients and your reputation.  You’re concerned because you think this client will be angry or upset that you didn’t have the catalog he wanted to look through and possibly take his business elsewhere.

She looked at me stunned.  Her mouth was gaping open and then she burst into tears. She clutched my forearm, connecting with me physically as I connected to her emotionally. 

Her:  Yes, yes!  I work so hard to go the extra mile for my clients and I’m upset because now this client probably thinks I’m not as efficient as I know I am.  What if he finds someone else to buy his suits from?  What if he thinks he can’t trust me anymore?

Me:  It must be very frustrating for you to feel like you might have lost some business through no fault of your own.

Her: Yes, exactly.  But you know, I mean, 98% of the time this store has come through for me.  I guess if I knew I needed that catalog I could have had it sent overnight instead of 3 day air.  I really should have been more careful. 

She looked over at the shopkeeper who was giving me a look of relief and thanks. 

Her: I’m sorry I yelled at you.  I know it wasn’t your fault.  I was just so upset at losing out on some business and I shouldn’t have taken it out on you.

Shopkeeper:  That’s quite alright.  I’m sorry we didn’t have the package ready and waiting for you on time.  We can probably do a little better in the future.

She turned to me and just sort of looked at me and we made a connection.  I smiled at her and said, “You haven’t lost his business.  He’ll be back.  You could offer to send him the catalog directly and give him a discount on his next purchase.”  She agreed that was a good idea. 

Sometimes you have to look past what people are saying and understand where they are coming from.  I have this habit of answering people’s thoughts instead of their questions.  When someone says something to me, I run it through my empathy filter and ask myself, “Why did they ask that?  What are they really trying to say?  Could there be another, deeper meaning to their question?” Often when I answer people empathetically they are amazed that I was able to discern their real intent through just a question.  Perhaps I’m cheating a bit and using telepathy ;) but the outcome is what matters.  Understanding people and their needs, their fears, their desires is what matters. 

The next time you are arguing with someone, stop talking and listen.  Just listen.  You’ll learn a lot more that way.  Resist the desire to defend or retaliate.  Ask them, “What’s really bothering you?”  And listen some more.  Then say back to them what you heard them say so they know you understood them. Sometimes the only way to be heard is to listen first.

A little empathy goes a long way…

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