Tears and Laughter

A Lesson in Empathy

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The door opens and a customer walks in. My first thought? “I wonder how long it will take me to get her clothes off?”

It’s 1993, and I’m a manager at a high-end bathing suit store in Austin, Texas. What I knew then, and know today, was if you opened the door to my store you were never “just looking.” You wanted a bathing suit. As the manager, I knew that if you were going to walk out of the store with a bathing suit, we had to overcome two giant obstacles.

One – Stripping down

The customer needed to be comfortable in taking pretty much all her clothes off in a room with limited privacy. I don’t know about you, but I have a hard enough time doing that in my own house. Heck, I don’t even like using public restrooms. It’s all too public. My goal was to expose the emotional concern through light-heartedness and empathy.

Two – Accentuating the positives

She needed to believe she looked great in what I like to call “public underwear.” A swimsuit is little more than water-resistant, stretchy underwear. I’m generally not ok with heading outside in my skivvies. Like every woman on the planet, I have a bit of a love/hate relationship with my bits and pieces. Conversations with these beautiful magical people sometimes brought out the tears. It didn’t matter how persuasive or helpful we were as salespeople. It didn’t matter how much we knew about the products we were selling (although it certainly helped.) If the customer wasn’t comfortable with stripping down to her undies and feeling good about wearing about a yard of lycra, a swimsuit would not be purchased that day.

Selling a swimsuit is fundamentally the equivalent of “What problem can we solve?” As salespeople, we must be in tune with the practical needs and emotional responses to answer that question. We must listen and understand what the problem is to be able to solve it properly. Each conversation, regardless of the product, should include:

I see you. I hear you. We feel the pain.

In this lengthy metaphor, you are the swimsuit. If you boil things down to the simplest concept, you are hired by someone to solve a problem.

Selling swimsuits is where I learned empathy, vulnerability and a little humor were the best ways to get a woman, in a moment when her inner critic is probably the loudest, to say “I like myself in this.” Tears and laughter people.

Empathy: it’s about them, not you.

Start thinking about what they might be thinking.

Originally published at

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