episode 4:
Why empathy is dangerous (in customer interviews)


Hey friends and fam, this is Hannah. And this is another episode of better customer interviews and by customer interviews I mean, the kind of conversations you really should be having with your customers or your clients customers. So you can optimize that website landmark conversions, right copy that actually gets people to click to act to make a decision.

I just hopped off a podcast, Vicky Fraser’s podcast. If you haven’t heard of her, or haven’t heard of her podcast, check it out. Google Vicki Fraser. She’s awesome. I love her podcast. I’m so excited. My episode with her should be airing in April. I’ll let you guys know when that comes out.

One of the questions she asked me about had to do with empathy and it kind of set some neurons firing in my brain. So I wanted to hop on here and record a little something for you.

Empathy is kind of a buzzword when it comes to customer interviews, but even in copy – this sense of wanting to be more empathetic, because that’s going to help us understand our customer better, help our customer feel understood.

Now, actually, empathy alone is pretty dangerous in a customer interview, and I’ll get into why in a sec. But right before I hopped on here, I googled – as we all do – empathy a definition. So, what is empathy?

Empathy is the capacity to understand or feel what another person is experiencing from within their frame of reference.

So specifically, it’s this kind of ability to share or understand the emotions and feelings of another person. Now, this is what happens when someone talks about something that you can relate to, when they share an experience with you. And you’ve had very similar experience. And you have that kind of point of connection.

It’s very similar to the way that we talk with our friends. If I’m talking with my girlfriends about something, we tend to kind of commiserate, right, we both have this like shared crappy experience.

Empathy isn’t always in the negative, but it’s a very kind of helpful point of reference to think of times that you’ve connected with people because you both have a shared, bad unfortunate experience.

And the problem with being empathetic in an interview is that you cut off your ability to remain curious to ask questions and bust assumptions because now you’ve agreed that you both understand this particular experience.

And the part of your brain that becomes curious about the other person shuts off. You focus, instead, on this point of contact, this point of similarity, this thing that you can both bond over.

And you don’t want that. You don’t want to close down the conversation. And you definitely don’t want to be making assumptions about what your customer thinks feels, experiences, their life context, etc.

So what you really need – instead – stems from this notion of like empathic concern. So empathic concern is a type of empathy where if someone in your life is in distress, not only do you feel it, do you feel their struggle, but you feel like you want to help them.

Now, the shift that I’m going to encourage here is less of empathic concern but more empathic curiosity.

The closest thing I can relate this to is compassion. So you having compassion is seeing the other person’s shoes, understanding their frame of reference, but also bringing in this empathic curiosity because really wanting to understand it from their vantage point, from their lens, right.

As an example, I was talking actually to Vicky today in the podcast, and we had this sort of point of connection, where we both related to a particular experience happening on a train. And it was a whole conversation about like social anxiety and awkwardness and related to what she mentioned about this, this train incident.

Now, that is great that we have this kind of like bonding moment, which happens when you find similarities with your customer or with anybody in your life. But it kind of cut down any of the nuances, like -what was her actual experience? Because it did sound very different to mine.

And I only pulled on like the tiniest thread, like the fact that she used the word train and I had a similar experience on a train with respect to social awkwardness and anxiety. So you really want to have empathic curiosity, right?

This is that ability to be what – we call in the counseling world – radically curious at every single point. So this is going to come from taking yourself out of the conversation. This is not about you finding points of agreement – and there are times in place and ways to do that, that don’t interrupt with your interview. This is really about remaining curious.

And you will be surprised at the power of curiosity and tension because those are two really potent ways of building rapport.

We often think building rapport is finding points of similarity, finding topics we can both connect on and talk about. And that can sway our interview into trying to be more agreeable, and find points of agreement, which biases the interview.

So empathy, empathic curiosity, and that radical curiosity, right, which requires you to really tune into the conversation. The moment that you notice you start to close down and you’re not really sure what next question to ask – it’s probably a symptom of you not being curious.

Because you’ve kind of felt like, oh, they’re not giving me the answer that I want, or I don’t know where else to go from here, largely, because you’ve shut down, you know, an opportunity – because you’re no longer curious, right?

You’ve kind of taken what they’ve said, put it on a map, you think that you know, you understand it, and you think you know where they’re going to go or you’ve reached some dead end, and that shuts off that curios part of our brain.

This is absolutely normal. And it’s something that you need to consciously flex. So having empathy, understanding what they’re saying and continuing to try to understand it, right.

So curiosity is that muscle that we need to flex because there’s so many things that we say in conversation to one another, that we take for granted. That, like, “Oh, I understand exactly what this person means”.

And so it does require stepping back from that and really kind of peering in to the conversation.

Try this out. Not just in a conversation with a customer – in an interview with a customer – but in a conversation with anyone. Flex that muscle of asking more, right trying to understand their exact experience.

What have you taken for granted? That actually if you ask about it is going to unpack a whole chunk of other information that you maybe didn’t even consider or know existed because you had kind of sort of assumed it was a particular way when in fact wasn’t.

So that’s my little tidbit for today. I hope you found that helpful.

If you like these podcasts, I would absolutely love – if you feel so inclined – if you would leave me a review on iTunes. It helps and I really appreciate it and I love your feedback. If you don’t love the podcast, go ahead and leave a review. I still love your feedback. I want to learn and keep improving.

And let me know how it goes. Shoot me an email at hannah@hannahshamji.com. I want this to feel kind of like a dialogue.

Like, maybe you’ve tried this, it didn’t work. Or, there is a particular scenario that came up that you tried and stumbled through it. If there’s any way that I can help, I would be more than happy to do that.

Alright folks, have a great rest of your day. Happy customer interviewing! Happy customer conversations! And I will catch you in the next episode. Bye