Empathetic Listening

Empathetic Listening: A Crucial Message for Hospitality’s Front Lines

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Empathetic listening is the most important skill for your front line employees to master. It’s more than simply hearing a guest’s complaints and acting according to a training manual script – it’s being a compassionate, understanding and potentially life-altering champion toward dispute resolution and your overall message of hospitality.

This is an open message to your employees – they’re the soldiers who make these crucial choices every day. With the following anecdotes, tools and techniques, they can turn someone’s day around. They can convert a guest with a bad experience into a loyal advocate.

Download this article as a PDF. Share it with all your front line employees. Post it on the bulletin board. It’s the least expensive and most important thing you can do to improve dispute resolution and enhance your guests’ experience by addressing their concerns.

The Situation

“What the @#$* is this? Are you kidding me? You idiots don’t know how to make crab!” The expletives continue. The man’s face flushes. His voice gets louder and he starts to stand up from his chair.

The man ordered soft shell crab and received a beautifully cooked, beautifully plated soft shell crab. He meant to order snow crab. He didn’t know the difference. But it doesn’t matter.

The server attentively (but quietly) listens to the man’s tirade until he finishes. What is there to say?

“I’m sorry for the mistake, sir. I understand your frustration. Is there something else you’d like to order instead? May I bring you some bread while you wait? It would be my pleasure.”

The man deflates – the wind is taken out of his angry sails and his face returns to its natural hue. A bit humbled, a lot grateful, he simply says, “Yes, thank you.”

Why Empathetic Listening is Important

What you’ve just witnessed is an example of why empathetic listening is the most important skill for anyone in the hospitality industry to learn and master. If you haven’t experienced a guest like this, you will. It’s inevitable. That’s not to scare anyone; it’s just human nature. We can all relate to both sides of this situation – as the disgruntled customer and as the associate stuck between a rock and a hard place. Even when the guest overreacts or is uninformed like in the example above, it doesn’t matter. Attaching blame or making excuses are unproductive and simply don’t matter. What matters is how the guest feels.

In that split second, remove yourself from the situation. Yes, you’re stressed and the customer may be angry with you. But step away. Does it change your perspective to know that the man’s wife just filed divorce papers? That he was just laid off from his job? That his son lost his limbs today in active duty?

You have no idea what your guests are carrying with them from the outside world. And you have no control over that. But what you can control is how you react. How you treat them. How you make them feel.

As Maya Angelou said, “People will forget what you said. People will forget what you did. But people will never forget how you made them feel.”

It’s incredibly empowering what our industry can do. In that instant, you have a powerful choice to make. You have the power to change that person’s day. It’s a butterfly effect. Your actions could launch a negative spiral that ruins the evening and beyond. Or, your actions could be the positive spiral that creates a memorable experience and turns things around for someone. And they’ll always remember it.

People often ask me: what should I do if the guest says this, that, or the other? What should I do if I’m right? What should I do if it’s not in the manual?

I’m here to tell you: it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter what the situation is, what the special circumstances are. The answer is always empathetic listening.

What is Empathetic Listening?

Empathetic listening is exactly what it sounds like – listening with empathy. It goes beyond hearing. It conveys nonverbal communication rooted in understanding and respect.

Tips for Empathetic Listening

  • Be fully present. Pay attention. Be interested in what the guest has to say. Be invested in their needs and their feelings with your verbal and nonverbal behavior.
  • Allow the guest to use you as a sounding board. Let them vent without judging them, getting defensive, or being critical.
  • Ask questions, but not too many. You don’t want to seem like you’re interrogating them but you want to convey that you’re interested in what they’re saying.
  • Mirror their feelings. Reflect back in words to them what they’re showing you. Just like you’d repeat an order for confirmation, repeat how you understand what they’re feeling.
  • Don’t discredit or undermine the guest’s position and feelings.
  • Provide brief verbal confirmations and use nonverbal cues like head nodding and body posture to show you’re listening.
  • Allow the guest to get through what they have to say without interrupting, changing the subject, preaching, teaching, screeching, or giving unsolicited advice.

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