“You’re great. This training has been good. I’ve learned some things, but is anything going to actually change around here?” asked a woman in one of my corporate training sessions, “Empathy-Based Customer Service”.
The room took a slight gasp at her question and then went silent as all 70 pairs of eyes looked at me for reaction and response.
It had been two stressful half-days of training with day one focused on internal issues and day two INTENDED to focus on giving better customer service as a medical practice. And the overall process for this training project had taken about a month, starting with a series of secret shopping to learn the client’s challenges for the purpose of creating training that would really help them. As a trainer there is nothing I want more but to deliver outcomes. Nothing irritates me more when the powers that be hire us to “fix” problems through training but then do nothing to carry it forward and ensure their return on investment.
“I don’t think it’s Gina’s place to answer that question. It’s up to us (management),” said another attendee before I could answer the woman who asked “Will anything change?” And I jumped right in and said, “It’s okay. I want to respond.” I asked the first woman her name to engage her and then address her by name: “Michelle, thank you so much for asking the question that EVERYONE in this room, including me, is thinking. I applaud you for that.”
The room seemed to have taken a sigh of relief and victory at the same time. I had finally cracked them open to a place of feeling safe enough to air out what was truly bothering them. This had taken place at the end of day two of training when I felt completely drained from trying so hard to engage a group of shut down employees. It became evident that my training content and presentation brought their pains to light but no one knew how to communicate it. And I also think that many were just plain apathetic at this point as another attendee said, “We do these trainings and nothing changes. Why would it change now? It never has before.”
It was the toughest program I’ve presented to date, customized specifically for this client (and now available for other clients in need of “learning empathy”, which by the way is an innate skill (and easily dismissed).
What made it so tough was that the client asked me to present our secret shop findings. While this made me highly uncomfortable due to what I knew could happen during the presentation, I also found it necessary to share the information so that they could learn. I removed the names of those “shopped” but of course people could figure out who had been evaluated (and now exposed to their colleagues).
Feelings were hurt. Some attendees were angry at me. And I felt crushed. My desire, my “why”, is to help others build better teams and organizations, not break them down. While I knew I wasn’t responsible for their pain, it still hurt me.
What an amazing opportunity though to fully demonstrate the content I had prepared on how to empathize! On my drive home on day one of their training I used the exercise I had taught them that day on how to tap into the objective side of emotional triggers to help them identify what people really need, yet exhibited as emotional reactions.
Feelings versus needs! Once you identify what someone else (or you) needs, based on their emotional reactions, you can quickly get to a place of empathy (or self-empathy) to treat people the way they need to be treated to be more productive (and profitable in business, quite candidly). Well, maybe not quickly. It does take some practice. As an improv instructor and performer, being quick comes easily to me! It really comes down to overtly observing people and actively listening to empathize and find solutions.
I used my observations of their reactions towards me from day one and presented what I thought they needed. And in my summary to them, I said that they were all personally accountable, especially management, for creating the change that they needed and wanted together as a team. It’s a two-way street and relationship between employees and managers/leaders. They couldn’t keep blaming each other or management. And when management doesn’t step up, I told them to “become the squeaky wheels of change” and to continue to ask for what they need, while also presenting solutions.
At this point in their final hour of training, we had gone so far off track due to what I called “breaking the seal” that I had to punt to get to closure without them feeling dismissed. I abandoned the rest of my content on non-verbal communication techniques and IMPROVISED (as I often do) and said,
“What change do you want? If you want things to change as a result of this training, let’s get real specific about it and charted it out.”
They were finally engaged in the last 30 minutes of their eight hours of training. We charted out their ideas and needs and I said, “Are you ALL willing to be responsible for pushing for these changes?” Of course they all said “yes”. I’m not sure things will change for them but when I asked for their final comments, feedback and how they would implement things they learned, one of them said, “I’m going to be the squeaky wheel of change.”
If I impacted just one person, there is hope for them and I can walk away knowing there WILL be some kind of return on investment!
By Gina Trimarco, Chief Results Officer