When IT products or services are ‘grandfathered’, reach their end-of-life or are superseded by new versions, some customers may be anxious or apprehensive of the change ahead.

This can be true even if a new version or new features were developed collaboratively with a subset of customers: not everyone will be pleased with a new outcome.

But according to Seung Chan Lim (‘Slim’), an executive coach with Forks & Bridges, the blow and anxiety levels can be softened by showing a bit of empathy.

And it’s something one can learn to bring into relationships where it perhaps does not exist naturally.

“Most people when they hear the word empathy they immediately think about the idea that empathy is something that happens automatically or involuntarily,” Slim said in an interview on the sidelines of SAP’s TechEd conference in Barcelona.

“You watch a singer sing or an actor act and you just immediately feel that sense of connection or oneness. That is certainly one way in which empathy could be realised but there is also another way where you deliberately practice realising your empathy.

“So if you’ve ever had a friend that you initially didn’t like – maybe you even hated that person, but over time you made an effort to connect with them, and through some trials and ordeals you then actually got close to that person enough so that you become good friends. If you’ve ever had an experience like that you have experienced deliberately realising your empathy such that you can have a more intimate relationship with a person.

“So absolutely you could learn to [empathise] on a deliberately practiced basis.”

Slim said he has been applying his own theory of empathy to leadership in organisations “for almost four years now”.

One thing he has learned is that “everyone thinks that everybody else lacks empathy”, and knowing this – he believes – can be an advantage when approaching a difficult conversation - perhaps one where the customer is unhappy at change and perceives you as the bearer of that news or seller of a solution to lack empathy with their situation.

“You don’t even have to go into an organisational setting [to see this] – you can see this everywhere,” he said.

“Husband thinks wife lacks empathy, wife thinks husband lacks empathy – classic case. That in and of itself is I think a useful sign; at least, it’s been for me and also for the people I help grow as a leader.

“Whenever you start thinking that somebody else lacks empathy, that’s a sign for you to think that potentially, and with a high probability, that exact person also thinks of the same thing about you.

“They think you lack empathy just as you think they lack empathy. So becoming aware of this is I think important - there’s a mutual involvement [needed] for empathy to develop in relationships.”

Slim believed it was important to be prepared to give something in a difficult conversation, as a way to demonstrate you empathise with the situation.

“A lot of the times when there is a service provider and customer relationship, the kinds of communication that happens between them tends to be very unilateral,” he said.

“The service provider has already made a decision: ‘we’re going to release the software’, ‘we’re going to have these features’ – whatever it is – and even if that has been a part of an exploratory process of design thinking or whatever that is, even if they’ve spent years doing whatever research they have, there is a tendency for a lot of companies to eventually use a unilateral chain of communication to engage customers [to adopt or buy it].

“Often times when a customer is in a situation where they think a service provider lacks empathy, they may be in some state of anxiety or fear. Maybe they’re afraid you’re going to make their software obsolete, or that you’re not going to add the feature they really need.

“If they’re in that situation and you go into that context with the mindset of unilaterally communicating [the change] … that conversation is going to go nowhere.”

Slim said the first goal should be to cater to the customer’s anxiety.

“You first have to do whatever it takes to get the other person to a place where they feel safe that even if something that they don’t want to happen in the future is going to happen, they feel sufficiently heard and understood that they’re in a place where they can engage in a conversation,” he said.

“Second, you have to be yourself put in a place where you haven’t completely made up your mind yet. You’re willing to be somewhat influenced.

“Even if you have some boundaries and constraints, you’re willing to engage the customer in a conversation, such that if you say, ‘Well I understand this is a really important feature and if we get rid of it something bad will happen to you. We’re stuck because we don’t know what to do, there are other business constraints that we have that forces us to do this but we’re willing to work something out with you’ ... there’s some constructive conversation that happens.

“That may not ultimately completely solve the problem, but it will keep the relationship strong. You’re building a relationship where you’re building empathy together and a level of trust is being built.”