“Empathy” is one of those buzz words that is overused. But despite being ubiquitous, in this era of social and political divide it’s more important than ever.
I often use an exercise in my workshops that gets to the heart of this.
Two participants learn about each other’s hobbies or interests. Then they are asked, “given unlimited resources, what is the ideal gift you would you give to that person?”
I like to kayak. Someone could buy me a new kayak. But, no, think bigger. Someone could buy me all the of the Rangeley Lakes in Maine, dozens of kayaks, and pay for lessons so all my friends can join me.
What people quickly discover is receiving this imaginary gift is really very satisfying. Coming up with the idea is equally gratifying. This exercise supports the old adage, “It’s the thought that counts.” (I have a friend who once gave his girlfriend batteries for their anniversary. It doesn’t apply in that case.)
When I was 13 years old my grandmother gave me a newspaper clipping about the life cycle of cicadas; they were going to emerge after being underground for 17 years. On it she wrote in her loving scraggily letters, “David, these insects are older than you are!” Grandmothers are supposed to do nice things, but I won’t ever forget it. This gift told me that not only was she thinking of me, but she made a connection I might not have made myself.
Buying me Maine and every kayak in the state would be wonderful. But, if you realize it’s sharing the wonder of the natural world that is compelling to me, not the real estate, that shows me you understand who I really am.
You can’t necessarily buy your clients expensive things – in some cases any gift might be considered a no-no. But true empathy is making a connection on a deeper level.
The next time your client tells you about a trip they took to NYC, make a note of it. Think about something you did that might be meaningful to them. The sights. The crowds. The shopping. Then go one step forward and make a connection personal to them. “I know you have a big family. I do too and we found a great place to stay off of Time Square.” Or, “You told me you were an avid bird watcher. I loved a private bird watching tour I took through Central Park. I recommend going with Dr. Robert "Birding Bob" DeCandido."
Making these kinds of thoughtful connections are moments your client won't forget. When we have so much competing for our attention, being memorable might be the greatest gift you can give.
I love this quote from the British Pakistani novelist Mohsin Mahid: “Empathy is about finding echoes of another person in yourself.”