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The #1 way to improve your empathy in sales

The #1 way to improve your empathy in sales

Empathy — the "sales professional's secret superpower" — is only attainable with the cognitive and emotional support of sufficient sleep.

The ability to empathize can make or break a sales pitch or customer relationship in the best of times. In the wake of COVID-19, most of your prospects and clients likely find themselves in uncharted waters, and you yourself are probably under a considerable amount of pressure to salvage deals and adapt to a changing market environment. With such unprecedented levels of uncertainty in businesses across every industry, empathy—and the human connections it creates—is more important than ever, especially for sellers.

Understanding the role of empathy in sales

According to a 2009 study published in Brain, empathy “refers to the ability of an individual to understand another person's mental state in terms of emotions, feelings and thoughts, which is important for an effective interpersonal interaction.”

“Effective interpersonal interaction” is of course the bedrock of sales, which is why empathy, according to sales leader Todd Caponi, is the “sales professional’s secret superpower.”

Empathy can transform a routine sales call into a moment of genuine connection between people, helping a seller to earn lasting trust and influence.

It naturally puts a salesperson in a customer-centric mindset, making them better at consultation and even identifying unspoken needs and creative solutions. It can also lead to more holistic pitch meetings, where a seller extends the conversation beyond the immediate stakeholder to decision-makers on related teams. This is why the best salespeople have always been those with the capacity to be deeply empathetic.

Empathy matters for sales leaders, too. Any high-quality leader has an uncanny ability to support others. This includes sound emotional reactions and processing as well as the ability to develop trust. In other words, empathy. Indeed, empathetic managers are more likely to cultivate loyalty, collaboration, and creativity among their teams.

The conversation around better leveraging empathy in sales has long centered on advice like being a good listener, being present, and allowing oneself to show vulnerability. While these are all important skills for a salesperson to master, one often forgotten, yet crucial ingredient is getting good, consistent sleep every night.


Sleep Is the missing piece

On average, you can assume 70% of your team struggles to get sufficient sleep. That’s a figure that’s only increasing during the COVID-19 crisis, with many new stressors in the world and the additional pressure that sales teams are feeling to help keep their companies afloat through budget cuts and hiring freezes.

While there is extensive research demonstrating that better sleep habits can help with improving cognitive skills and increasing focus, sleep is also key to experiencing greater emotional capacity, ultimately leading to being a more effective salesperson.

When someone is struggling with sleep debt — the cumulative effect of not getting enough sleep — they’re more likely to see a negative impact on performance for tasks related to the prefrontal cortex, which is the part of the brain responsible for executive functions. These tasks include the regulation of problem solving, reasoning, and processing emotion—which is crucial to empathy.

Sleep debt levies a particularly acute hit on emotional regulation. It not only disturbs the effective functioning of the brain’s prefrontal cortex, but it also reduces the functional connectivity between the prefrontal cortex and the amygdala region of the brain, as well as wrecks havoc on the amygdala itself. The amygdala is the emotional rapid response center of the brain that controls many of our immediate emotional reactions.

Sleep debt causes the amygdala to go into overdrive, causing us to be more intensely reactive to situations. As sleep clinician Michael J. Breus describes it, the prefrontal cortex “puts the breaks on impulsiveness,” acting as “a traffic cop for our emotions.” When you don’t meet your sleep need and this connection between these two regions of the brain is hampered, we become more impulsive and less thoughtful in our emotional responses.

How lack of sleep makes it hard to be empathetic

Current theories of empathy hold that there are two main components. Cognitive empathy refers to the ability simply to understand another person’s feelings and state of mind. This underpins a seller’s capacity to predict a client’s behavior and intuit when they’re withholding information.

Emotional empathy, on the other hand, occurs when you go beyond mere understanding of another person’s feelings to vicariously sharing in them. This could look like feeling distressed by another person’s anguish (what’s called ‘indirect’) or experiencing physiological arousal like an elevated heart rate at their anguish (what’s called ‘direct’). This sort of empathy can forge solidarity and tight bonds between teammates as well as managers and their direct reports.

A deep body of research shows that sleep debt can affect both components of empathy, with significant consequences for sellers and their managers. Sleep debt can impair one’s ability to read facial emotions, particularly angry and happy.

Being able to pick up on these cues is vital for any salesperson who wants to better understand and serve their customer’s needs—imagine trying to read the room at a new business pitch without it. Likewise imagine a sales manager trying to identify struggling team members in order to offer them support without it.

Sleep debt has also been shown to hinder empathic accuracy, provoking conflicts in relationships. In a work setting, this spells trouble for collaboration and morale. Compounding this issue, sleep debt leads to a lack of trust in others, particularly in studies centered around deal-making.

On the flip side, adopting good sleep habits and reducing overall sleep debt by just eight hours has the power to increase a person’s empathic response by 30%. At the same time, it promotes countless other mental and physical benefits, like a 67% decrease in expressed negative emotions and improved focus, memory, and problem-solving. This is why there’s such a strong connection between more sleep and better performance; our study with a Fortune 200 company, in partnership with the Kellogg Sales Institute, showed an average of 14% growth in monthly revenue as a result of simply reducing sleep debt.

In another observational study of objectively measured sleep and performance we ran with a bankruptcy law firm consultancy in partnership with the University of Washington, sellers increased weekly sales by 30% after implementing Rise. Improved empathy from increased sleep was identified by the company COO as the specific reason for the enhanced performance outcomes we documented.

Helping salespeople improve sleep habits

Promoting good sleep within an organization is one of the easiest ways for executives and managers to improve sales metrics while showing their teams that they care, breeding greater employee satisfaction and retention. But what specific sleep habits should managers promote?

Managing sleep debt and circadian rhythm

Sleep debt refers to the cumulative sleep a person has missed over a period of roughly 14 days, and it’s the metric that matters most to how you feel and perform.

Keeping debt (how much sleep you’ve missed relative to your personal sleep need) down unlocks everything from stronger empathy to greater productivity.

Arm your team with this knowledge, and also make them aware of the role circadian rhythm plays: it dictates the natural ebbs and flows of energy that take place in the body over a 24-hour cycle. Understanding this pattern (and that it can shift over time) empowers team members to schedule important tasks like sales calls during energy peaks, and more passive tasks like checking emails during dips.

Make sure your sleep environment is conducive to sleep

To fall asleep and stay asleep, make your bedroom cool, dark and quiet, like a cave. Set the thermostat to between 65 and 68 degrees Fahrenheit, ensure your room is dark enough that you won’t know when the sun comes up (we recommend a sleep mask), and wear earplugs.

Restructuring daily behaviors

Simple behavioral changes can help a salesperson transform the way they sleep and improve their performance. Aligning these activities with the energy peaks and dips of your circadian rhythm makes them particularly powerful.

  • Morning ramp-up: Start the day with natural light and something active, like a walk, run, or quick home workout (which will also help that night of sleep). As your energy rises, plan the day ahead and check your email.
  • Morning peak: Reserve this time for work that demands your highest level of focus, such as critical decision-making, presentations, and sales calls, as well as activities that require the most emotional fortitude, like prospecting and dealing with rejection. You’ll have the high energy and cognitive capacity to take them in stride. By the late morning, stop consuming caffeine (switch to decaf or cut it out entirely). Caffeine is excellent at curtailing sleep inertia, the natural period of grogginess you experience after awakening, but can stay in your system for upwards of 10 hours, threatening a good night’s sleep.
  • Afternoon dip: Schedule administrative tasks like emails or CRM updates, or passive webinar watching for this energy lull, which is a normal part of your circadian rhythm (not a hangover from lunch). On the weekends, this is a good time for a workout or household chores, and the best time for a nap. Naps can help make up for lost sleep, but should be restricted to your circadian dip and last for periods of 15-20 minutes or 90 minutes (the full sleep cycle). Otherwise, they can make one more tired and groggy or very difficult to fall asleep at the right time at night.
  • Evening ramp-up and peak: Knock out another project that requires a high level of focus or collaborative effort. Taking advantage of this peak leaves you ready to start winding down.
  • Evening wind-down: In the evening, respect the body’s wind-down period by doing something relaxing like taking a hot shower. Avoid the blue light that emits from most phones and laptops, particularly during the 90-minute window before the body’s natural time to sleep. This is the last energy dip of the day when the body starts producing melatonin to help one ease into a restful sleep, and it can be impeded by blue light. If it’s not possible to avoid screen-time entirely, turn devices to “night mode” at this time and wear blue-light-blocking orange glasses (we recommend these).

Empathy Is key, now and always

There are many tricks to help salespeople get better sleep at night, and they all come down to reducing sleep debt and respecting the body’s natural cycles within the circadian rhythm.

Once these concepts are understood, salespeople can unlock unrealized potential in their lives and at home, particularly when it comes to empathizing and building relationships with others.

About the author

Jeff KahnJeff Kahn is Co-Founder and CEO at Rise Science. Rise is the only app that produces the real-world benefits of better sleep. Jeff and his Rise co-founder were the first to publish research on technology-enabled sleep behavior modification over a decade ago, and have recently completed the largest known study on sleep and real-world job performance across the NFL and sales teams. Jeff's research and work have been featured in The New York Times, Harvard Business Review, and The Wall Street Journal, and on ESPN, NBC, CBS, and Fox Sports. Jeff holds a B.S. in Health Systems Engineering and an M.S. in Engineering Design & Innovation from Northwestern University.

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