CRJ200 Airline Pilot

The personal experiences, thoughts of an CRJ captain

Empathy and Connecting With Passengers

Posted by Jeffrey on October 13, 2008

Do you know how to empathize with your passengers?

Did you know that there is a difference between empathy and sympathy?

Webster defines empathy as:

“…the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner.” In other words, “putting yourself in the other person’s shoes” or “seeing things through someone else’s eyes.” 

Sympathy on the other hand is:

“…the act or capacity of entering into or sharing the feelings or interests of another .”

There is an ever-so-slight difference between the two. Empathy is based on “understanding” what the person is going through without being emotionally involved. Sympathy on the other hand is the process of actually taking on the burden of what the person is experiencing.

Think of a policeman. When a policeman is doing his job, which at times is difficult because they must interact personally with people going through trying events, they must “understand” and be “sensitive” to the situation at hand without getting emotionally involved in the situation. Once you get emotionally involved in a trying situation, you have now lost control of the event. With empathy, a policeman can maintain personal contact with the person, since they are human after all, but still effectively control the situation.

As an airline pilot, whether a captain, first officer, or flight attendant, the same personal control applies. When flights are delayed or cancelled, remaining professional will always help you get through the event. Medical emergencies are another event that requires you remain professional and empathetic because that is what will help you work through the situation.

To me, being empathetic has a calming affect. I can concentrate better on the things I need to get done IF I don’t get emotionally involved in the situation.

On one occasion, we diverted back to Grand Junction (GJT) because of thunderstorms in Salt Lake City. Most the passengers were OK with the diversion because I kept them informed on the weather in SLC and the procedure for getting them to their destination. One lady though was inconsolable. She progressed from logical to demanding to hysterical within an hour. Put on top of it all, I was having my yearly line check and my first officer was near to useless, I was under a lot of stress as well. To control the situation, I had to detach myself from this lady’s personal problems and not get involved. I could “understand” what she was going through and project that image to her but I could not get emotionally involved. It is a constant process of checking yourself, self-talk, and slowing down that will get you through such a situation. Eventually, because the lady was now starting to upset the other passengers, she was removed from the flight.

Do you need to cultivate your “empathy?” You sure do!

Here are a few practical tips that may help:

  1. Truly listen to people. Open your ears, close your mouth, and look at the person. Fight back the urge to formulate your next response and just listen. Watch their body language, listen to the tone of their voice, and really try to understand what it is they are trying to say.
  2.  Don’t interrupt people. Don’t dismiss their concerns offhand. Don’t rush to give advice. Don’t change the subject. Allow people THEIR moment.
  3. Tune in to non-verbal communication. This is the way that people often communicate what they REALLY think or feel, even when their verbal communication says something quite different.
  4. Be aware of what your body is doing. As I mentioned in another entry, 93% of what you say comes from your tone and body language. Relax your body and let your body “listen” to what the person is saying. https://cospilot.wordpress.com/2008/09/24/what-did-you-just-not-say/
  5. Use their name. Try to use it at least five times when you are talking to them. Don’t do it obnoxiously though.
  6. Don’t let other distractions like your cell phone or email distract you from giving that person your undivided attention.
  7. Smile…and not just with your face but with your eyes as well.
  8. Give recognition and praise freely.
  9. Take an interest in the people you interact with. I try to ask everyone I meet three personal (but not too personal) questions about their life, hobbies, family, etc. This shows that you are interested in that person as a human and friend. Obviously you can’t do that with passengers but you can connect with them in other ways.

Alright, so I hope that helps. And remember, one measure of a person is how they treat someone who is absolutely no use to them. In all likelihood, you will never see your passengers again, but that shouldn’t stop you from trying to connect with them and leave them with the best flying experience that they ever had. We are in the customer service industry and using empathy is one tool that will help passengers think more highly of those in the aviation industry.

Till next time…

P.S. Here are a few books to add to your library. Remember, growing as a captain is a never ending process!

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