Why the curse of knowledge kills empathy – and how Zen Buddhism might bring it back

Looking for empathy? Don’t ask an expert

Lots of clients tell us they have an empathy problem. No matter how instinctively empathetic their people are outside work, they struggle with it in their day jobs. Especially if they’re talking to customers about tricky subjects that really need it, like death or debt.

So, what goes wrong?

Partly, it comes back to our old nemesis, the curse of knowledge (or the more you know, the more you assume everyone else knows, too). It’s the reason businesses might inadvertently baffle us with jargon or be surprised when we struggle to follow their processes.

Normally, having customer service teams full of experts is a good thing. They’re efficient. They’ve got the right comms templates and processes for every scenario. But all that expertise and efficiency can also send them onto corporate auto-pilot. They get so caught up in process, they forget about the people.

It’s not just the corporate world that has an empathy problem

A study last year showed medical students become less empathetic the further they progress in their training. Maybe they forget what it’s like to be on the receiving end of a tough diagnosis for the first time. Or to avoid the emotional toll of giving bad news, they detach themselves from it. It’s easier for them in the moment, but it’s not better for the patients or ultimately the hospital. (Several other studies show the doctors with the best bedside manner get sued less, regardless of how many mistakes they make.) It’s a reminder that how you give news matters just as much as the news itself.

None of this means experts can’t be empathetic, though. They just need to work a little bit harder.

Replace corporate autopilot with Shoshin. (Or, think like a beginner)

If you’re cursed with knowledge, the Zen Buddhism approach of Shoshin might have the cure. Literally translated, it means ‘beginner’s mind.’ Shoshin encourages people – including experts – to approach even familiar situations like beginners.

Think about your complaints team. If there are certain things customers often complain about, chances are you have a templated reply ready and waiting (and hopefully you’re working on fixing the problem behind the scenes, too).

But what if this complaint is slightly different to the one you had this morning or yesterday or last week?

If you follow Shoshin instead and think like a beginner – treating this complaint like it’s your first – you’ll read it more carefully and really think about your reply. The tried-and-tested process might still be right. This way, you’ll be sure. And if the old process doesn’t work, you’ve got the chance to change it now rather than making things worse later.

So next time you’ve got a tricky situation to deal with, don’t assume you’ve heard it all before. Think like a beginner to bring more empathy to every message.

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