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Emotional intelligence

Why it's more important your employees have emotional intelligence than empathy


Emotional intelligence is often confused with empathy. But the two are not the same - and organisations may find more value developing the skill of emotional intelligence than trying to empathise with people.

7th Sep 2020
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I think it’s time to be a bit controversial about the term "empathy".

It’s a word very frequently used in our world of customer experience, but do we all know what it means? I thought I did. Turns out I was completely wrong.

I’m curious, what do you think it really means?  

Does the hackneyed phrase of “walking in the customer’s shoes” come to mind when you think about empathy? Do you consider a time when you thought someone truly understood the emotions you were feeling about an issue or are you taken back to a scenario with your colleagues when they shared examples of when something similar happened to them? 

The thing is, contrary to very popular belief, there may be very little point trying to walk in your customer’s shoes, to stand in those shoes or even try them on for size. It’s an unreliable approach, because the emotions we feel are unique to us and those emotions are as a result of our values, beliefs, experiences and the context at that moment in time. We may just find more value from developing the skill of emotional intelligence than trying to empathise with people. Empathy is unlikely to create positively memorable experiences, whereas emotional intelligence does.  

Before I go any further, I should explain that what you are about to read is a flavour of one section within the Applied Customer Experience and Emotional Intelligence playbook which is free for you to download at the bottom of this page.

The playbook is my attempt at organising some thoughts and ideas as I prepare for my first ever TEDx next month. I invested time to create the playbook to challenge some widely held beliefs in customer experience and to invite my peers to review what we think empathy is, as I have and to examine how it works and why empathy is certainly not the same thing as emotional intelligence… but more on that in a moment.

Understanding how emotions are made

To kick off, we need to talk about ‘emotions’. I was wedded to the idea that there were a limited number of emotions our species could experience emotionally until I was introduced to Lisa Feldman Barrett and her book How emotions are made

While what I am about to say seems obvious, very few of us really think about what this means for customer experience.

The emotions we feel are as unique as our thumbprint, or any other fingerprint for that matter. They have been shaped by:

  • Our socialisation – how we were brought up and the influence of significant adults in our lives (we could end up talking about transactional analysis and the book Counselling for Toads by Robert de Board);
  • Our experiences - these will be many and varied and interpreted in even more ways; 
  • And finally, the context of the situation, which is also the result of our own perception. 

With this in mind, why do we design customer journeys where we want our customers to feel a certain way or why do we predict or expect that customers might feel this way or that? We have absolutely no idea what emotions they will present us with.

Emotional intelligence is not just empathy

The majority of people I meet think that empathy is emotional intelligence and emotional intelligence is empathy. Only one part of that sentence is true. Empathy is one of 12 competencies that comprise the skill of emotional intelligence. Empathy is certainly not the extent of emotional intelligence – it’s so much more than that!  

So that we are starting from the same place, here is a quick definition of emotional intelligence designed by Dr. Daniel Goleman, the author of countless EI publications and journals:

“Emotional intelligence is your ability to recognise and understand emotions in yourself and others. It’s your ability to manage your behaviour and relationships”

To help explain what emotional intelligence is, let’s imagine an apartment block with four floors. The ground floor represents the ‘domain’ of self-awareness and the competency of ‘emotional self-awareness’. We spend a lifetime nurturing this skill as life experiences help us understand our emotions and the reasons for them. 

When you get to the first floor, you’re in the self-management domain. On this floor you’ll find emotional self-control, adaptability, achievement orientation and positive outlook. It’s only when you have taken the steps up to the second floor that you’ll find the ‘social awareness’ domain and this is home to empathy and organisational awareness. 

The third floor is the place to find the fourth and final domain, relationship management – we will cover that another time. So we can see that it’s just one room in a big block.

Empathy and active listening

According to Dr. Goleman empathy works on three levels. The first is cognitive, where we can connect with the emotional expression of experiences of others just in our mind – ‘we get it’. The second level is emotional which is where we start to feel a sensation which we believe is similar to the person we are empathising with. The third - and most effective in customer experience for reasons I explore in more detail in the playbook - is compassionate. 

This is the most intense as it leads us to take action as a consequence of the sensations we are feeling. Simply put, we do something about how we are feeling, in service of the other person. The thing is… are we feeling what they are feeling really? We are not them, standing in their shoes we are still ourselves with our emotions we have developed over time trying to decode the influences of their entire lives. Will we do the right thing?

Given my earlier definition of emotions, there’s a big question here about the practice and value of empathy. I do wonder if we are confusing the so-called ‘empathy’ techniques adopted in call centres with great active listening either by the agent, or a computer that then tells the agent what to say. That’s a theme for another article another day.

Emotional intelligence on the other hand starts with each of us and it’s the reason why I help people develop the skill. It’s all about our ability to understand our emotions and to manage them. When we have developed this skill, (which thanks to neuroplasticity means I can learn it at any time in my life – phew!**) we are better equipped to ask great questions which will help the person we are communicating with describe what they are feeling, without as much classification or judgement from us. This is what gives us the opportunity to create meaningful and emotionally positive connections with others and to do things that are often simple but deeply valued and memorable.

If we are unable to really think or feel the same emotions as the colleagues and customers we deal with, is it better to know what we are feeling and just to ask great questions of the other person, so that we can connect over the description of an emotion you can share, rather than trying to get into their shoes? I used to wear Dr. Martens for years as a student, they’re hard wearing, but no to everyone’s taste!

** Find out more about how you can develop your emotional intelligence skills on the Applied Customer Experience and Emotional Intelligence course starting on 17th September.  Online. 9 weeks. A few places still available.


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