Service through Empathy

Student – I enjoyed your talk about developing qualities of a leader, but what about people who are not in positions of authority? How do people like my brother and I, respectively office workers dealing with the public and F&B employees, develop the right qualities to do a good job and be happy in our work? Thank you.

Master – Here are two pointers: First, empathy. This should be the engine that drives this kind of employment. Sadly, instead of viewing customers with an empathetic mindset, workers often see them as nothing more than extra work, an attitude that leads to sloppy, inattentive, and sometimes even rude service.  

We have all visited shops where the shop assistant barely looks up from their phone, merely pointing to some distant item when asked a question about the goods on sale. In addition, we have encountered office workers who make no effort to help us complete our task, and even look for reasons to deny our request. Not only does this kind of attitude leave the customer feeling frustrated and unsatisfied, but the assistant and office worker are also unhappy and discontent. 

Normally, empathy is considered a feeling of sympathy for someone in difficulty. Here, I’m using it in the context of understanding others’ feelings. When someone walks into your office or your brother’s café, instead of thinking “here comes extra work”, you can think “here comes a human being with feelings that are no different from mine.”

Then, consider how you would wish to be treated if you were in their shoes or how you would like your mother or siblings to be served. Would you like to be ignored or dealt with rudely? Would you be happy to see your mother spoken to indifferently or your siblings ignored? 

In Buddhism, we acknowledge that motivation is the root of positive deeds. Of course, we could have good intentions but later get pulled off track. However, if we do not have good intentions at the beginning, then there is absolutely no possibility of a good result. 

This doesn’t mean that you are weak and process unreasonable requests but that you at least try to create an environment where everyone leaves your office satisfied – and this could occur even after a request has been refused by offering a clear and polite explanation, rather than just a cold and uncaring refusal. 

As for customers with a bad attitude, well they could be troubled by a serious illness or worried by family issues. We just don’t know why people act the way they do, and so rather than responding to rudeness with more rudeness, maintain a firm but cordial tone, even if you are refusing a request.

We are all intrinsically connected to others and the environment, and so cannot help but ride the prevailing tide of social attitude and conditions. In this respect, a welcoming and obliging manner not only brings a sense of contentment to you and your customers, but in a small way raises the collective sense of wellbeing, which benefits all of us. 

In acknowledgement of this reliance on others for our wellbeing, a traditional Japanese reply to a question about their wellbeing is not the standard English response of ‘I’m fine, thanks’, but ‘Okage sama de’ – ‘Thanks to you (I’m fine)’.  

In the context of your situation, we recognize that if helpful and friendly service is the norm in a country or city, we all benefit. In contrast, a culture of indifference and rudeness creates a dense social fog, which envelopes all of us. Similar to a local factory owner who breathes in the smoke pumped out from his factory, unhelpful staff also suffer the negative atmosphere that is created by pervasive indifference and rudeness. 

How do we transform the situation? We do so by taking to heart the words of Mahatma Gandhi, “You must be the change you wish to see in the world.” In short, if we want to live a happy and content life, we need to create those conditions for others. Put in another way, we have to treat others as we ourselves would wish to be treated.

Of course, we are human and will be pulled by our emotions, but persistent attempts to introduce empathy into your work will, over time, weaken habits of indifference and lack of care for others. 

The second pointer is judgment. We need to avoid judging others, but see everyone as equal. This is not only an essential attribute for professional service-providers, but also frees us from the suffocating, exhausting, and restrictive environment caused by judging others. 

As Dzongsar Khyentse has said, “Morality feeds the ego, leading us to become puritanical and to judge others whose morality is different from ours. Fixated on our version of morality, we look down on other people and try to impose our ethics on them, even if it means taking away their freedom.” 

Many young guys tell me that they are looked down on because they have long hair and tattoos. What are the causes of such opinions? They are merely the result of our upbringing and limited exposure. Yet, instead of recognizing that our opinions are nothing more than concepts formed from limited life experiences, we believe them to be ultimate realities and universal truths, and this is so destructive. In fact, all genocides, wars, and acts of violence are rooted in the belief that our impressions of others are unquestionable realities, rather than just personal biases projected onto them. 

If you think that there is something inherently wrong with guys with long hair, then many of our ancestors must have been bad people. Similarly, Thai monks, who are symbols of virtue and morality, would be considered unwholesome beings as they often sport tattoos.     

So, try to treat everyone who comes before you equally, and avoid speaking down to people whose manner of dress and hair-style doesn’t conform to your interpretation of what is standard. 

If outer appearance was a true window into a person’s character, then Tilopa and Milarepa would be on the lowest rung of human existence, whereas, in reality, they were accomplished yogis who represent the highest level of sanity.

How do we avoid judging others? We do so by watching our minds. As soon as we are aware that we are mentally commenting on others based on their appearance, we remind ourselves that this is just a projection that we are imposing on them, which has absolutely no basis in reality. This will not only lighten our mood, but drastically improve our performance as a service-provider. 

As a means to help eliminate biases, it may be helpful to remind ourselves that every sentient being without exception possesses Buddha nature and has the potential to awaken to the truth. 

Even Milarepa, who killed his relatives or Angulimala, who murdered 999 people, were later able to recognize the truth and become role models for future generations. Despite committing heinous crimes, how could they accomplish this state of realization? It was because they possess Buddha nature, which is innately pure and never tarnished by bad deeds or improved by good ones. Similarly, everyone we serve in our office or cafe has the same nature and the same potential, even if they are currently deluded by ignorance.

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