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Seeing with the eyes of another

Creating Empathy

Empathy is probably the most important attribute in selling: the ability to put yourself mentally in the client’s shoes. It is the skill of experiencing the other person’s feelings and emotions imaginatively.

Many people confuse empathy with sympathy, yet there is a distinct difference. Sympathy literally means to ‘be in favour of or agreement with one’s mood or opinions’, whereas empathy means to really understand, but not necessarily agree.

In empathy, the self is the vehicle for understanding, and it never loses its identity. Sympathy, on the other hand, is concerned with communion rather than accuracy, and self-awareness is reduced rather than enhanced. In empathy one substitutes oneself for the other person; in sympathy one substitutes others for oneself. To know what something would be like for the other person is empathy. To know what it would be like to be that person is sympathy. In empathy one acts "as if" one were the other person. The object of empathy is to understand your client. The object of sympathy is the client’s well-being. In summary, empathy is a way of knowing; sympathy is a way of relating.

Empathy only becomes possible if you can mentally see the selling process from the client’s point of view. There is an Old Spanish expression: ‘In order to be a bullfighter you must first learn to be a bull’. In order to be a successful intermediary you must first learn to be a client.

Empathy therefore will be based on identifying with your client on a professional level and will depend on the type of information that is exchanged. A great deal of your information will come from asking questions and listening to the answers.

Listening and empathy responding

Listening and empathizing are essential skills when relating to your clients. Most of us spend 70% of the day communicating, 45% of that time listening. We all want to be listened to (but spouses talk only 10-20 minutes per day). It is insulting to be ignored or neglected. We all know what it means to listen, to really listen. It is more than hearing the words; it is truly understanding and accepting the other person's message and his/her situation and feelings.

Empathy means understanding another person so well that you identify with him/her, you feel like he/she does. The Indians expressed it as: "Walking a mile in another person's moccasins." It is listening so intently and identifying so closely that you experience the other person's situation, thoughts and emotions.


  • It shows you care and that you understood the client. Thus, your clients will enjoy talking to you and will open up more.
  • If you have misunderstood, the client can immediately correct your impressions. You learn more about the client.
  • It usually directs the conversation towards important emotional topics.
  • It lets the client know that you (the listener) accept him/her and will welcome more intimate, personal topics. It invites him/her to tell his/her story and vent his/her feelings.
  • Since it is safe to talk about "deep" subjects, the client can express feelings and self-explore, carefully considering all his/her deep-seated emotions, the reasons for those feelings and his/her options. Thus, it is therapeutic.
  • It reduces our irritation with others because we understand. To understand is to forgive.
  • It may even reduce our prejudice or negative assumptions about clients because we realize we now have a means of finding out what the client is really like. Furthermore, we discover everyone is "understandable."
  • It fosters more meaningful, more helpful, closer friendships.
  • Empathy is one of the more important skills you will ever acquire. It is amazing how few intermediaries do it well.


Step 1: Learn to be a good, active listener.

Listening requires us to, first, really want to know the other person and, second, avoid the many common barriers to careful listening, such as:

  1. Constantly comparing the client with you. (Who is smarter? Who has had it rougher? This is too hard for me!),
  2. Trying to mind read what the client really thinks (Suppose he really likes his wife? He probably thinks I'm stupid for saying that),
  3. Planning what argument or story to give next,
  4. Filtering so that one hears only certain topics or doesn't hear critical remarks,
  5. Judging a statement to be "crazy," "boring," "stupid," "immature," "hostile," etc. before it is completed,
  6. Going off on one's own daydreams/ideas,
  7. Remembering your own personal experiences instead of listening to the client,
  8. Busily drafting your answer or advice long before the client has finished telling his/her problems,
  9. Considering every conversation an intellectual debate with the goal of putting down the opponent,
  10. Believing you are always right so therefore there is no need to listen,
  11. Quickly changing the topic or laughing it off if the topic gets serious, and,
  12. Placating the other person ("You're right... Of course... I agree... Really!") by automatically agreeing with everything (McKay, Davis & Fanning, 1983). Because of these barriers, we typically retain for a few minutes only 65% of what is said to us (recall 2 months later is 25%). There is much room for improvement.

It is not easy to listen actively all the time. Our concentration lasts only 15-20 minutes. All of us get distracted at times. However, the good listener gets back on track and asks clarifying questions when things are not clear. Above all, we must guard against prejudices, closed-minded opinions, defences, and fears of being wrong which prevent us from hearing what is said. Furthermore, we must check what we hear against our knowledge of the situation and human nature. We should ask: How is the client feeling and thinking about him/herself? How does he/she see the world? Finally, we must "listen to" the facial expression and body language as well as the words. Listening is a complex task. Listening can be done at twice the rate of talking, so use the extra time to review what was said and not to wonder what wasn't said.

If we were supposed to talk more than we listen, we would have two mouths and one ear.

-Mark Twain

A good listener (intermediary) looks the client in the eye, nods at and leans towards the client, encourages the client with smiles and "uh-huh," carefully avoids distractions and the other barriers mentioned above, remains earnestly interested in understanding the client and freely shares his/her own opinions and experiences when it is his/her turn to talk.

Listen carefully to the client’s story and never interrupt. Put yourself in the client’s place. Do you really understand? Encourage client s to bring complaints to you, not to your competitors. Do not expect the client to be reasonable: complaints provoke emotion. Express regret for the problem, be sympathetic and take immediate action.

Step 2: Understand what is involved in empathy responding.

A good listener must respond, letting the client know he/she was understood. This responding is empathy. It is even more complex than listening; no one is perfect. You do not have to be perfect, but the more accurate an empathiser you can become, the better. Often, when we are upset, we want to express and share our feelings with an understanding person. Therefore, the good empathiser focuses on the client’s feelings, not on his/her actions or circumstances.

Example: when talking with someone who has just been left by a lover, do not ask "What did he/she say?" or "When did you first suspect being cheated?" but instead attend to and reflect the feelings, "It really hurts" or "You obviously feel abandoned and lost." This focus on feelings encourages the client to explore the core of the problem--his/her emotions. When we are upset, we need to work through and handle our feelings before we can concentrate on solving our business and personal problems.

Sample Questions

The following are typical questions you can use either to introduce yourself to the client or to get feedback and input from your client.


  • Who am I?
  • What makes me different from any other intermediary?
  • Why am I taking your time?
  • What is my experience with helping people in your situation?
  • Who else have I worked with in the Insurance Business?
  • What will you get out of this meeting?
  • Why should I do business, become a partner in your business?
  • You may be wondering…
  • Many client s ask me…
  • If I were in your shoes…
  • In your view, what are the underlying issues that we need to discuss?
  • In your view, what would be the effect if…?
  • What are your thoughts on…?
  • Would you like to offer some words of advice about…?

As you would realise from the type of questions asked above, they are all design to create a feeling of understanding, empathy with the client and his or her situation.

It firstly addresses typical concerns the client might have, of working together with you as a new intermediary. Secondly, you need to reassure the client that you are competent, know, and understand the type of business they are involved in. Thirdly, you want to draw the client closer to you, as their intermediary.

© Successful Salesmanship – Johann Cloete