The word “empathy” comes up in nearly every sales or coaching seminar I conduct. “Empathy” is tossed out, usually by a veteran professional, as a ‘silver bullet’ to gaining agreement or resolving a condition that is preventing some type of agreement. It’s a funny sort of logic: If I’m empathetic then the client will naturally recognize my ability to put myself in her shoes and conclude that my attempt is sufficient proof that I’m the right choice.” Yet this type of understanding is contrived and has serious limitations.
Empathy is a function of imagination, so people say things like “I can imagine what that must be like” or “I can only imagine” or “I understand what you’re saying.” But do they really? CAN they really? Who’s to say that one person’s imagination is the same as the next? And who’s to say that one person’s ‘understanding’ is identical to another person’s understanding? It’s impossible to definitively reach those conclusions. Empathy is an artificial type of identification. Because of these limitations it fails to accomplish its goal: aligned perspectives, aligned appreciations, aligned outcomes.
Attunement: “To bring into a harmonious or responsive relationship.” A powerful and beautiful concept. Whereas empathy strives for some type of outside-in understanding attunement accomplishes an inside-out intimacy that is far more personal and therefore significant. First, attunement stems from the customer (or friend, or wife, or pal) rather than the salesperson. Second, there’s nothing imagined or contrived about attunement–there’s a level of genuine integrity that simultaneously preserves different points-of-view while creating an open shared relationship. Second, attunement creates an understanding that can be built upon between two people. Third, attunement is real. It means that one person is graceful enough to admit to another “I don’t understand what you’re going through, but help me understand what you’re feeling, what you’re experiencing, what you’re concerned about, why things are important to you that might not be equally important to me.” It’s real. And once it happens the nature of a conversation–in sales, in life–changes, becomes significant, authentic, open. It’s what we all want in life–harmony and people who want to be harmonious with us.
People, all of us, want to feel valued and secure. We want to share with people we trust and we hope they’ll share in return. Empathy, well meaning as it is, limits the quality of sharing because it is limited in and of itself. Attunement, however, opens doors and opens hearts.
If given the choice between a conversation with a person who says he can understand my situation and a person who says she wants to understand what I’m going through–without judgement or hurried conclusions–I’ll always pick the later.