If you’re not expressing empathy before you begin diagnosing your prospective customer’s problems, you’re putting the relationship at risk. Learn how to begin conversations in a way that displays empathy and establishes trust.

The Problem

A previous Owner's Manual article covered the importance of bringing a mindset of cluelessness to conversations with prospective customers. This mindset allows you to understand a prospect’s true situation and needs instead of relying on your preconceptions.

Even with a clueless mindset, it’s important not to jump into discovery questions too soon. Otherwise, your prospects may assume that you’re more oriented toward solving their problems than you are toward their overall success.

Jumping right to solving problems reduces your ability to build trust with prospects. They will be less likely to be vulnerable and share other challenges.

A Solution

A better approach to build trust with your prospects is to open conversations with general questions, creating the time and space for prospects to share the challenges they’re facing and to express related feelings.

In response, you can empathize with their feelings instead of interpreting and diagnosing what they’re saying. In the book Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life, author Marshall Rosenberg recommends displaying empathy by first saying nothing and just listening to what the speaker (the prospective customer) is observing, feeling, needing, and requesting.

As the next step to display empathy, Rosenberg recommends confirming your understanding of their feelings by paraphrasing their message back to them. You can paraphrase in the form of a question, to give the prospect an opportunity to correct any misunderstandings.

For example, if you sell CRM software, a prospect might say to you, “Right now, each of my twelve sales team members keeps all of their forecast data in a spreadsheet that they own. I’m the only other person who has access to each spreadsheet and I sometimes have twelve browser tabs open moving between each of their spreadsheets. It was fine when I only had three team members but now it’s unmanageable.”

You might paraphrase their statement back to them by saying, “It sounds like it’s confusing and frustrating for you that each team member’s forecast data is currently kept in multiple spreadsheets and that you’d like to refer to a single resource for all the data. Is that accurate?”

Rosenberg shares a method that can be applied to determine once it’s appropriate to move to discovery questions. “We know a speaker has received adequate empathy when (1) we sense a release of tension, or (2) the flow of words comes to a halt.” So wait for your prospect to signal to you that it’s time to move to discovery questions.

After empathizing—and before the discovery questions—you may find your prospect saying, “This was so helpful. Thank you!” Listening and displaying empathy will make the prospect more willing to offer candid responses during the discovery questions.

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