Carly*, a millennial sales executive in one of my workshops came back on day two beaming with pride.  She had implemented the “Empathy” skill we worked on the day before, but not in a business setting; rather in her personal life.

Here’s what happened:

Carly’s boyfriend worked in a restaurant and often came home at night with a complaint about the manager. Carly would offer advice often replying with “You should…” only for that solution to fall on deaf ears.  That night it happened again, and they talked about it.  This time, instead of jumping in right away with “you should” instructions, she adhered to the Active Listening process: Acknowledge, Clarify, Recap.

With a sweet smile on a beaming face, she proudly reported that after their conversation, “He looked at me with eyes like I’d never seen before.”
*name changed to protect her identity.

How did this happen and what had she learned the previous day?

Sellers have been told since the beginning of capitalism: Connect with your buyers! Build trust in your relationships to be successful! Show you care!

What’s this all about? 


Empathy – the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. 

Seems pretty simple, huh?  So, how do you practice and show it as a seller? Why is it important?

For some people, empathy is hard-wired into their personalities. We all know someone who intuitively recognizes the emotional aspects of people and events around them.  They are sensitive souls who can “take the temperature” of a room and adjust their demeanor.  Friends seek them out for comfort or advice.  Unfortunately, it’s been my experience (and a little self-talk here), that most of these empathic people are not in sales.

If only it wasn’t true.

Most of us in sales have to work hard at empathy.   We struggle with getting into the minds of our prospects in our conversations.  We move in and out of opportunities because the prospect “doesn’t get it” whatever “it” is. We realize only too late that we failed to truly understand the nature of the prospect’s goals, objectives, challenges and issues.  We are told to show empathy if we want others to open up about these things, but not how to do just that.  We are left winging it, and hoping for success.

Also, we are told over and over that buyers buy from people they trust.  We trust someone when we are convinced they understand our unique situation and feelings about that situation.  That is, we trust those salespeople – going back to the definition above – who shows they have empathy for us.

But try telling another person, “You need to show more empathy!”  I’m talking to you Sales Managers. They may agree, but they may also become either angry or withdrawn, feeling that you don’t have empathy for them!  They may also wonder, “How do I do that? How do I show more empathy?”

The Active Listening Process
At some point in a sales conversation, the buyer will complain about a situation or describe something they are trying to accomplish. Most sellers will then immediately go for the sale – attempting to solve the problem or describe their offerings as a way to achieve the buyer’s goals.


This is not only a bad move, but also dangerous to your sales cycle.  Just like Carly whose boyfriend didn’t listen to her whenever she tried to solve his restaurant manager issues without actively listening first, you are not showing empathy by reflexively going to your tool belt. You risk failing to build trust.

There is hope:  You can become an empathetic sales person who quickly gets to trust by employing a three step Active Listening process.



Acknowledge the emotions of the situation.
While it sounds like the speaker wants you to fix it for them – and they very well may in the future – in reality, they mainly want you to understand how they feel.  “Acknowledging feelings” involves taking in their statements, looking at the “whole message” including body language, tone of voice, and level of arousal, and trying to determine what emotion they are conveying.  Then you let them know that you realize they are feeling that emotion by just acknowledging it in a sentence such as:

“Gee, I think I can understand how that might suck.”
“I can tell that’s really weighing on you.”
“Wow, yeah, that would be awesome!”


In a non-judging way, ask for clarification and detail.

This conveys that you are making a good effort to truly and deeply understand and not just trying to push your opinions onto them.  To formulate a relevant question in asking for more clarification, you will have to listen carefully to what they say. Frame your questions as someone trying to understand in more detail, perhaps even asking for a specific example. This also helps the buyer evaluate his or her own opinions and perspective.

Some examples:

“What’s going on?”
“Did something happen today/this week/quarter?”
“How bad is it?”


Recap in a non-evaluative way.
This will allow the buyer to determine if he/she really got the message across to you, that you “got” it. It will also help the buyer become more aware of how he or she is coming across to another person, which may be clarifying for them.  You’ll show empathy by thinking about what the buyer is conveying and paraphrasing it back to them in your own words without judging the correctness or merit of what they said, and asking if that is what they meant. They will appreciate that you clearly took the time to listen first and again, that you “got” it.

“So, what you’re saying is….”


And yes, this three-step Active Listening process for building empathy and earning trust, is not only a SalesReformSchool lesson but a life lesson.  Just ask Carly.

Supplemental Material:
The response to my initial email was heartwarming.  Thank you for the many notes of congratulations on finding or returning to my passion.  I read this article this week that would have been instructive months ago.  Call, text, email, tweet or whatever at me if you ever want to talk about this stuff.

Extracurricular Activity

A sweet and fun movie on Netflix on finding or re-finding your passion.
That’s all for today.

Good Selling!
Through SalesReformSchool, I am available to you for Sales Process Design, Sales Messaging Creation, On-boarding/In-boarding Sales Team Workshops, Keynote Addresses, Facilitation, Group or One-on-One Coaching, Pipeline Reviews and other Sales Management Consulting.