What I learned about empathy from a used-car salesman

Image by Felix Russell-Saw at unsplash.com

Image by Felix Russell-Saw at unsplash.com

If you're anything like many people I know, or like I was before I did some work in the motor trade, you probably can relate to thinking generally about car salesmen like we might think of sharks.

Dangerous, predatory, untrustworthy.

So when I was part of one of the most heart-warming conversations I've ever had, I knew some day I'd be writing about it. I got permission from the people involved to write this, this week, so here it is.

Let me introduce you to a manager and a team - we'll call the manager Mark (because that is his name).

This manager has been dealing with a sales person who recently lost a very young child, after becoming ill with a rare condition that claimed his life after several months.

I wasn't mainly moved by stories I was told about the whole team attending a tiny person's funeral while the most senior manager 'held the fort'.

It wasn't even by the tears I saw in a colleague's eyes as he talked about what it is like to have one of your team go through something so painful.

Nor even knowing that after returning to work, Mark sent the rota schedule home so the salesperson's wife could complete it to give her some choice over when her partner came back to work.

It was something else.

Mark (he's a parent too) and I were talking about empathy - it's a huge part of the work I do with them and he said:

"How do you do empathy though, when you haven't been through what someone has been through?"

"When they say 'do you know what I mean though?'

And you have to say 'no'.

'No, I have no idea what this must feel like for you'."

Compassion takes courage because it's hard to put yourself in someone else's painful shoes.

Because you can't imagine what that experience is like AND because you have to try, if you are to find the place in you, which knows what they are going through.

I've thought about this a lot.

Partly because I've learned a lot about empathy from this team, and their love and support for their colleague and his family.

And here's what I know.

You can empathise with someone without having had their exact same experience.

Maybe you've never experienced the intensity of what they're experiencing, but you can still relate. If you've known sadness, or fear, or loss of any kind, you can relate.

You can use words like these (I learned most of these from my Daring Way work)

  • I'm so sorry this is happening to you.
  • I don't know what to say, but I am here with you.
  • I will stay with you while you go though this.
  • I am so glad you told me.
  • What do you need, right now?

I think it's more hand-holding and sitting, than fixing or understanding or minimising.

To be willing to empathise, we have to be willing to get it wrong, to maybe say something clumsy, or have it come out not like we intended.

It's okay when we have good intentions to connect with, to feel with, the other person.

It's what binds us in our common humanity.

And if we can be willing to get it wrong and 'circle back' to put it right, we're more likely to try to empathise.

  • I'm sorry, that didn't come out like I wanted it to, let me try again.

or

  • I don't know what to say, but I am here with you. What do you need?

or

  • I don't think I listened well enough when you told me. I'd like to try again. Do you feel like talking?

I wanted to share, because I'm blown away that I'm having these conversations in a culture which most would agree isn't our first thought when we consider places we might find heart-warming empathy and connection.

Isn't that wonderful?

I love that I can easily describe the used-car salespeople that I know as compassionate. Kind-hearted. Empathetic.

This is an extreme story, but it's not the only one I have from my work in the motor trade. Many times I have driven away from a day's Emotional Intelligence coaching in a dealership with my heart bursting wide open with the connection and deep feeling I've witnessed there on that day. 

So if you're wondering if we can empathise with someone's pain, my answer would be yes.

If Mark can do it, so can all of us.

 

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