When is empathy hard for you?

I got this question during my job interview at Automattic. This was years ago, but I still ask myself the same thing over and over again. Applying for a customer support position I knew empathy will make up a large part of my job, and it’s crucial to be able to exercise it in all sorts of situations. With time I learned that no matter how much you practice empathy, there will still be situations when you can’t muster any, and it’s equally important to be able to identify them.

The question of empathy came back to me this week, when I got thrown completely off track by a customer of ours. Even though I usually don’t have any problems empathising with customers who are furious or shouting, there was something about that particular message that I couldn’t stand. Looking back, I interpreted their choice of words as grandiosity and entitlement, which must have been apparently some kind of a big deal for me.

Among my colleagues, I preach about validating customer’s feelings all of the time. When someone makes unfair accusations and outrageous demands, it’s usually because they feel unheard and helpless. Making them feel heard and understood is the surest way to solve the problem. I’ve done it multiple times before, and thought I’ve been quite good at this so far.

Yet because I perceived that particular person as an entitled prick, I’ve completely shut myself to the emotional content of their message. It was fun to watch myself compose a reply to them, cause I knew I was doing it wrong. I just couldn’t see any way how to do it right. Everyone confirmed that this person had unreasonable demands, so I explained why we’re not going to do what they wanted in the friendliest way possible. As you may guess, they came back pretty upset and immediately started pushing back.

I asked my team for feedback on what I did wrong. They pointed out this user must have had such strong feelings about that functionality for some kind of reason. Even though what they asked for made no sense to me, in the world as they saw it their request made perfect sense. Had I stayed curious and asked for some context to what exactly they’re hoping to achieve, I’d see where they’re coming from and what it is that they actually need. I could look for a better way to satisfy the same need. I’m still far from empathising with that person, but at least I can see there are plausible reasons to what they did other than entitlement.

Why am I describing in such great detail my beef with some random customer? Because for the first time ever I noticed strong emotions triggered in me way before I acted out on them. I still chose to reply to that person despite my emotional unavailability, which wasn’t very effective. I could have taken a break to see if I can find myself in the right mental space. I could have asked someone else to take over.

This is a great lesson for dealing with friends and family, as they tend to trigger more things in me than a random customer would do. I have much higher expectations of them, and so it’s easier for me to get upset when these expectations aren’t met. Whenever this happens, it would help a lot if I just stayed curious and asked for some context so that I can understand the reasons behind what they do or say. And if I’m too upset to even consider this, I should still be able to ask for a break and come back when I’m in a more empathetic space.

One response to “When is empathy hard for you?”

  1. I worked inbound toll-free for five or six years. My emotions got triggered a lot at first. What really helped was that the other parts of the department got better at their jobs and we were able to provide better answers to the callers. Once everything rose to a certain level of competence, nothing fazed me any more. A lot of departments stagnate so there are many angry customers, and you never get used to it. I’m not saying your situation resembles any of this; I’m just sharing my experience.

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