At the basis of any good relationship is caring about what the other person cares about. Empathy — it’s when you can imagine what it’s actually like to be another person: what their fears are, what they’re excited about, and what makes them angry or happy. It’s a superpower, especially in business.
During my last semester of college, I took a diplomacy course. The class taught the skills necessary for peaceful dialogue and negotiation between countries. It was a requirement for the degree I was pursuing, and my idealist college self was quite excited about the class since I had always dreamed of working for the U.N. and solving all the world’s problems.
The professor was an ex-ambassador who spent the majority of the semester elaborating on the importance of empathy. At first, my classmates and I found his anecdotes annoying and, quite frankly, a total waste of time (if we wanted to learn about people’s feelings, we would’ve become shrinks). But a few classes in, we realized our professor was on to something.
The key takeaway that semester was that the best way to assure peaceful dialogue and a winning negotiation is to make sure the other party feels heard and understood.
So how can empathy and my diplomacy class help you save your business? I’m so glad you asked. There are three easy steps to helping maximize your empathy in ways that will benefit your business.
1. Ask open-ended questions.
For most of your clients, this is the first wedding they’ve ever planned. They’re feeling overwhelmed with information and are looking for someone who can be their trusted guide through the jungle of wedding photography. The first step in helping is by asking open-ended questions. At the beginning, these could be questions such as the following:
What do you envision your wedding day to feel like?
How do you imagine your final wedding album to look like?
What types of photos are you most attracted to?
As you move further with your collaborative relationship, new situations will arise, and asking open-ended questions will help you gain a better understanding into what your client’s needs and wants are. “How is wedding planning going?” or “Is there anything weighing on your mind that I can help you with?” are great questions to pose when you check in with your client throughout their engagement.
Not only will open-ended questions help your client narrow down their wants and expectations, but they’ll also give you some great insight into how you can best serve them throughout their experience with you and hopefully avoid any miscommunication or unmet expectations.
In order to understand the needs and wants of your clients you need to listen, not only to what they are saying, but also to what they want to say but don’t have the right words to explain. For example, most of us wedding photographers can agree that when a bride says she wants “real candids, nothing too posed,” what she usually means is she wants to be posed to look her best, but to also have photos that look casual and relaxed.
In more tricky situations, when you’re dealing with an upset client, actively and empathically listening to their grievances will not only help in pacifying the situation, but it will also provide you with ways to reassure them and offer potential solutions. In the end, there’s no such thing as peaceful dialogue without active listening.
The kindest thing you can do for a client is put yourself in their shoes and connect with how they’re feeling about their problem or situation. The most glaring example right now is postponements due to COVID-19. Is your client anxious about postponing their wedding? Imagine you’ve spent years planning your dream wedding only for a global pandemic to put your plans on hold. Vendors and venues have been reserved, invites have gone out, flights have been booked. What can you do to empathize with your client? How can you reach out and reassure them? If it was you, what would you like your wedding photographer to do for you?
It’s easy for us in the wedding industry to become apathetic to our clients since we’re dealing with our own difficulties and anxieties at the moment. Our businesses are suffering, and we are trying to find a balance between staying afloat and being understanding to our clients. All of that is valid. However, if we truly want to save our businesses, we have to turn away from any apathetic feelings and strive to keep empathy alive.
Spoiler Alert: I didn’t end up saving all of the world’s problems after college, but I never forgot the lessons from that particular class and brought them with me when I started my business. They’ve proven incredibly beneficial — even more so now, when the need for empathy is greater. Our collective experience during these last couple of months have proven how important it is for us to connect with each other. Our clients will remember how we treated them during this difficult time, so let’s connect, empathize, and make them feel heard and cared for. Being empathetic to their needs and fears will make us more sensitive and more in tune with others’ emotions. We’ll become stronger artists, and in the end, our businesses will thank us.