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The Center for Sales Strategy Blog

Wise Advice on Empathy in Sales—2,000 Years Before the Word Empathy Was Invented


"If you wish to persuade me, you must think my thoughts, feel my feelings, and speak my words." — Marcus Tullius Cicero (c. 106-43 B.C.), Roman philosopher, lawyer, and orator

Empathy may have been too touchy-feely a concept in Cicero’s day to have been awarded its own word. In fact, the modern word empathy is a 19th century creation in German (einfühlung), migrating to English in the early 20th. 

But as soon as a concept is given its own word in Webster’s (the lexicological equivalent of a star on Hollywood Walk of Fame?), the word takes over. It can take on all sorts of meanings never intended at its creation or denoted by its creators. 

Today, for most people, empathy is pretty indistinguishable from sympathy, from the concept of wanting to comfort others in whatever distress they may be experiencing, of being, well, touchy-feely. The drive to comfort another may be useful in sales from time to time, but true empathy—the ability to project yourself into the other person’s shoes—is essential to the success of anyone who is trying to sell almost anything.

It is this ability that was communicated more accurately by Cicero over 2,000 years ago than it is by the use of the word empathy today. In terms of the application to sales, Cicero nailed it. Being a linguist, among his many other extraordinary capabilities, Cicero would appreciate our parsing his famous quotation, our digging deep to understand its implications well.

“If you wish to persuade me,” Cicero wrote, “you must think my thoughts, feel my feelings, and speak my words." Let’s look at all three parts of that.

“Think my thoughts.”

Understanding a prospect’s needs, problems, and opportunities means you must process the information they provide as closely as possible to how they process it. You still retain your own perspective and processing, but thinking their thoughts means adding their paradigm, their understanding, their knowledge, even their beliefs and biases to your own—so that you can use that deep level of understanding to help persuade them.

The first step toward being able to think the prospect’s thoughts is to get them to express those thoughts. Get them to talk by asking interesting, purposeful, relevant, timely, sometimes even provocative, questions. Listen carefully. Deepen your understanding with follow-up questions, and check your understanding with confirming questions. 

“Feel my feelings.”

People buy on emotion and justify with fact.

Salespeople who just stick to the facts miss more opportunities than they grab. Cicero wisely advises salespeople to be alert to feelings and emotions. Watch and listen for evidence of emotion—a change in voice volume or pitch, grander gestures, leaning forward (sometimes even standing up), lengthier answers, faster-paced speech, occasionally a flushed complexion. Take note of which topic generated that emotion.

What feelings are on display? Conviction? Exasperation? Frustration? Pride? Delight? Relief? Fear? Desire? These feelings are insights into motivations that may be key to gaining the sale. Acknowledge these emotions and reflect them as appropriate.

Proposals built around those needs or problems that triggered the emotion are more likely to succeed. Be certain to frame your solutions and proposals in ways that key in to their feelings and emotions as much as their knowledge and analysis. Remain alert to changes in emotion, too; if the emotion was fleeting and does not recur in future interactions, it may not have been significant. 

“Speak my words.” 

We like to use our own jargon. We get so accustomed to our terminology that we sometimes use it without considering whether it aligns with the prospect’s terminology. The prospect understands his words perfectly, but our words? Maybe, maybe not.

Replacing our words with their words is most critical when defining the prospect’s needs. Listen very closely to exactly how the prospect defines and describes their needs, problems, challenges, and opportunities. Speak those very words and the prospect will believe that you understand her perfectly, and she’ll have greater trust in your proposed solutions.

Using the prospect’s terminology in place of your own is nearly magical. Even if you know there are better, more accurate ways of describing that need, avoid the temptation to say it your way.

This is empathy.

How many times have you bought a product that you didn’t fully understand? Or chosen between various models or versions without studying the differences exhaustively? In many cases, we arrive at our decision because it was recommended by the salesperson we’re working with. When we feel fully understood by the salesperson, we trust the advice and we move forward.

That’s what Cicero was talking about more than two millennia ago. When we think the prospect’s thoughts, feel the prospect’s feelings, and speak the prospect’s words, the prospect’s trust and confidence make persuasion a lot easier.

Are you trusted and valued? Learn the formula to build a powerful business relationship in this PDF.