A few weeks ago I received a call on my cell from one a major donor. She started by saying “…your phone directory is useless. I want to talk to someone and all I got was a stupid directory that I couldn’t figure out.” After the call, I asked staff why we have that phone system and was told that we have assumed that no one wants to leave a message or just wait for a phone to be answered. Clearly that assumption no longer holds true.
I’ve been thinking about this and it seems that we imposed our needs over the need of the person calling. We assumed they were willing to trade instant answer for a ringing phone with a chance to speak with a live person. This is precisely the opposite of what they want. Extrapolating this out to other challenges, I wonder how many other times we assumed the answer without engaging people who were dealing with the problem? This is a fairly common problem in nonprofits. Many nonprofit leaders are sure they know the solution to complex and varied problems before they have really understood the problem from the perspective of the people struggling with it. This perspective is called empathy and is a critical skill to develop for two reasons.
- Empathy forces you to understand the problem from the perspective of the person you are trying to help. The problems we work on are rarely our own problems…they are the problems of particular sets of people.. youth, the homeless, AIDS patients, drug addicts and so on. Empathy forces us to understand who they are and what is critical to them.
- Empathy requires you to engage with people. You have to speak with and engage people in their own environment to gain empathy. By engaging people you new insights into their behavior which enables you to come-up with better solutions to the challenges they actually face.
We are going to redesign our phone system so that when you call you can get to the options you care about quicker and if you want you can skip the whole thing and get to live person faster.
How can building empathy help you improve how people interact with your organization?