“The real art of conversation is not only to say the right thing at the right place but to leave unsaid the wrong thing at the tempting moment.” —Lady Dorothy Nevill, writer and famed horticulturalist
Lately, I have been thinking a lot about empathy and how we are relating to one another 2023 style. As many of you may be aware, AI (artificial intelligence) has slowly crept into our world. There are numerous software programs available to all of us that will take a few random thoughts and sentences, scramble them like literary eggs, and turn out an omelet in computer speak.
If you read enough on-line copy, AI rears itself most everywhere from thoughts like “What are the 10 Best Ways to Plant Daffodils” to “Choosing the Right Insurance Carrier.”
To create such masterpieces, chances are a marketing intern has thrown a number of bullet points into an “AI hopper” and voila! out popped creative genius.
Artificial intelligence has its uses, of course, but if you want to express yourself using heartfelt emotion and personalization, AI is not your best choice.
Recently, a rather entertaining example of this fact appeared in Forbes magazine (January 23, 2023) about a new consumer product (and please understand this is not an advertisement).
Squeezable Olive Oil
Andrew Benin is the CEO of a startup company that had the idea to turn extra-virgin olive oil into a squeezable product. The company is all of one-year old and already has nearly 36,000 customers. Pretty impressive, huh? Almost.
As with any startup, the company has suffered a few bumps and bruises. According to the article, “Some of those customers were disappointed when their holiday gifts arrived late and badly packaged.”
Benin had a tough decision to make. He could have ignored the complaints and laughed them off or issue a sincere apology. He decided to write a detailed, heartfelt apology not just to those who complained, but to everyone. Further, he wrote the apology in his own voice, complete with grammatical goofs, typos and misspellings. He asked everyone to give his company a second chance.
He titled the apology “Learning from our mistakes.” He pulled no punches in giving himself a beat-down. Said the Forbes article:
“He took accountability for those errors and offered a discount on future orders. It was raw, transparent, and messy with typos and misspellings. It was also oddly entertaining and strangely charming.”
He sent out the email not knowing quite what to expect. However, something a bit odd occurred. The article explained: “The average open rate of the regular marketing emails was already exceptionally high at 58%. This one reached 78%.”
Customers applauded his honesty and his integrity. His humanity came through.
Said Mr. Benin: “All you need to do is dig deep, reflect on all the things in marketing and brand communication that piss you off, and do the exact opposite.”
The funny part, I suppose is that before he sent out his handwritten note he played around with AI. One of the AI Services called ChatGPT, came up with:
“Dear valued customers, we understand that our mistakes have likely caused frustration and disappointment for you, and for that we deeply apologize.”
Where have we heard that approach before? Everywhere – and that’s the problem. The AI approach was as sincere as the apologies so many of us have recently received from the airlines for delays and cancellations. Were their apologies heartfelt and authentic? I didn’t think so either.
Words have weight, not just meaning. It is important that words are chosen wisely to build deeper, richer connections with those you lead and love. We need to remember that we can say something once that will stay with a person a lifetime – good or bad.
It is why when we believe we’re being empathetic when we say, “I know how you feel,” we’ve actually hijacked the conversation and made it about us. The natural reaction to such an unfeeling exchange, even though it may not be expressed is “You do?”
“I know how you feel,” is the AI approach.
For example, if you “lost” your 12-year-old Golden Retriever to cancer, and someone who is not even a pet owner says, “Oh I’m sorry, I know just how you feel,” would you believe them?
Grief and mourning are intensely personal. The better choice might be: “I can’t even begin to imagine how you feel. Tell me more.” If you truly believe your situation would support another you can add, “I believe I have experienced something similar.” The goal should not be to make this conversation about ourselves. Much better to say, “I just want to extend to you I’m willing to share my story of loss now or anytime in the future if you believe it would help.”
It is better to let certain things be unsaid or, if they are said, to lead with humanity and heartfelt compassion. While I don’t claim to know the long-term effects that AI might have on business, I do know that saying something off-handed or “conveniently cold” to a friend could very well last a lifetime in its insensitivity.