Chris Markiewicz's Blog
Every Monday – thoughts, observations and ideas that hold up a mirror to who & how we are

Two men and a hole – a lesson in empathy

A word that often comes up when I’m running customer care courses is empathy. However, when I challenge people to come up with a definition, especially as distinct from sympathy, they often struggle.

So, I turn to a distinction I heard years ago on a motivational tape by a man called Bill O’Brien. Whilst it may not, strictly speaking offer a precise dictionary definition, I find it helpful. Based on this, I tell a story of  two guys, Joe and Mick who go out for a drink one evening. Joe proposes that Mick sleep over at his place that night, to save dashing for the last train home.

As the evening unfolds, Joe ends up chatting to a nice girl whilst Mick is getting tired and eager to get back and get his head down. His mate suggests:

Take the key to my place and let yourself  in. Can you leave the key under the plant pot, so I can get back in later. By the way, it’ll be much quicker if you take a short cut through the graveyard”.

Heeding Joe’s advice, Mick heads off through the cemetery, only to fall straight into an open grave. He can’t climb out – he’s stuck. Oh dear.

Meanwhile, Joe finds himself having to beat a retreat from the pub. The girl’s boyfriend, a professional wrestler, turns up and takes none too kindly to Joe’s advances towards his loved one. Oh dear.

Hotfooting it through the graveyard, Joe just about stops himself falling into the open grave. He then hears a plaintive voice calling from below:

 “Help, help I’ve fallen in!”

Recognising  Mick’s voice, and feeling sorry for him,  he decides to jump into the grave with him in order to console him. They’re both stuck now, having what Bill O’Brien called “a thumb sucking party” – sympathy.

Alternatively, he could have gone back to the pub (wrestler notwithstanding!), borrowed a length of rope from the landlord, come back and pulled his mate out – empathy.

Of course there would also be a third option – ignore him altogether, declare him a silly sod for not looking where he was going, and carry on home, leaving his mate stuck down the hole – antipathy.

The only problem with the third, antipathy option though, is that it usually comes back to bite you…….

…….he gets to his flat and – no keys.

Meanwhile on the other side of town, Karen is beside herself with sadness as she’s just been “chucked” by her boyfriend. So, her best friend Laura comes round. They proceed to spend several days wallowing in their old pyjamas,  listening to sad songs and eating gallons of Haagen Dazs, with plenty of blubbing for good measure – Sympathy.

Alternatively, Laura could have said to Karen:

“C’mon girl, get your gladrags on, we’re going clubbing – he’s not worth it!”

–  Empathy.

Sympathy is quite nice. It can feel good and even soothing, but it only goes so far –  it doesn’t move things forward. Empathy, just like sympathy, does involve imagining you’re in the other person’s position, but also involves doing something about it.

So, in the customer care context, sympathy is rarely enough when there’s an issue. Phrases like  “I can only apologise” or similar, simply don’t cut the mustard with a disappointed or frazzled customer. Whoever is dealing with the situation needs to be empowered to do something about the issue – pull the customer out of the hole – that, for me, is true empathy.

I’ll end on a nice take on the ancient Native American view on this:

In order to get to know someone, Walk a mile in their  moccasins…..

 …….by which time you’ll be a mile down the road and you’ve got their moccasins”.

Antipathy, I’d say!



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