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How to teach empathy to restaurant teams for better hospitality

Empathy might not be part of your restaurant’s training program—yet. But knowing how to teach empathy can make a serious impact on your staff, customers, and the bottom line. This important skill can create a positive workplace culture and improve the hospitality experience for guests. Both of those benefits can translate to lower turnover and higher revenues for your restaurant.

Here’s a guide on how to teach empathy in a restaurant, including real-life examples of how to put these ideas to work for your business.

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What is empathy, and why is it important for restaurants?
Team empathy
Guest empathy

What is empathy?

Empathy is the ability to understand another person’s feelings and put yourself in their shoes. It’s also about valuing different perspectives and having compassion for other people, according to Harvard Business Review.

In fact, teaching empathy can be a helpful part of every restaurant training program. After all, hospitality is a two-way street. Employees with a strong sense of empathy will be better equipped to succeed at their jobs, whether they’re dealing with fellow team members or restaurant guests.

Teaching empathy to both diners and restaurant staff creates an environment of mutual respect. | Credit: Getty Images.

Why empathy is important in restaurants

Cultivating empathy—and other soft skills like communication, attention to detail, and taking initiative—helps employees deliver outstanding hospitality that makes guests feel heard and valued. A server who can understand the frustration of an unsatisfied guest can manage that situation more smoothly than one who can’t.

Practicing empathy for fellow employees will help your team work together, especially in the dynamic, high-stress restaurant world. People want to know that their efforts and contributions are valued.

Developing empathy is good for managers and owners, too. Looking at situations from the staff’s point of view is a practice that will give you insight into what they need to excel and make you a more effective leader.

Methods for teaching empathy in restaurants

Encouraging empathy shows the others—whether fellow team members or guests—that you value their perspective and are paying attention to what they have to say. You can teach empathy in your restaurant’s training program by focusing on these five key areas:

  1. Active listening. This communication technique goes beyond hearing what another person has to say. It’s responding to what they’re saying and reflecting back what you heard back to cultivate a mutual understanding.
  2. Identifying body language. Nonverbal cues like facial expressions, posture, and gestures can clue you into a person’s emotional state. It’s also important to understand what your own body language communicates to others.
  3. Building rapport by engaging with intent. You can create rapport with others by using techniques like active listening (see below) to develop trust and find common ground. It’s about understanding the other person’s needs and priorities and approaching the relationship with that in mind.
  4. Recognizing unconscious bias. Everyone holds unconscious biases. Understanding this is the first step in recognizing your own prejudices. Consider what biases you might hold, then investigate those beliefs.
  5. Act with kindness. This one might be obvious, but we all need a reminder sometimes. Acting with warmth, generosity, and consideration for others should be at the forefront of your interactions. Extending kindness is one of the best ways to receive positivity.

In addition to working these ideas into staff training, it’s important for management to set an example. Just as children develop empathy by watching adults, restaurant owners and managers can model empathy for staff.

Image depicts two restaurant workers using a tablet.

Using technology to teach employees empathy can be an effective tool. | Credit: Getty Images.

Teaching the team to show empathy to one another

Teaching empathy in the workplace can improve the team culture for everyone. It lets employees know their contributions are valued and respected. It encourages them to support each other, identify and work to fix problems, and come in ready to give their best for their teammates each day.

Aside from making your restaurant a great place to work, an empathetic workplace is one with lower turnover and better service. Here are some ways you can apply these teachings in your restaurant.

Skills to teach teams for increased empathy

Active listening to teammates

Actively listening is a technique that improves communication and increases empathy. The elements of active listening include:

  • Looking directly at the person speaking
  • Smiling and nodding to show you’re listening when appropriate
  • Using encouraging verbal cues like “yes” and “go on”
  • Paraphrase what the speaker is saying, starting with phrases like “What I’m hearing is …”
  • Ask questions, especially if something isn’t clear to you

These behaviors come naturally to many people, but you shouldn’t let your expectations for active listening go unsaid. Spell these elements for the team members, especially when they first come on board. One-on-one training is an opportunity to be a role model and show new hires how team members communicate. During training, show that this type of engaged communication style is the norm at your restaurant.

Showing teammates positive body language

Teach staff to be aware of how they present themselves and pay attention to their coworkers’ body language and facial expressions. Small adjustments like making eye contact and standing up straight can communicate respect and show you’re paying attention.

Image depicts two diners sitting at a bar.

A healthy restaurant space teaches empathy to everyone that comes to dine. | Credit: Getty Images.

Building rapport on the team

Employees might love their jobs, but they show up every day to earn a living so they can provide for their basic needs. Empathetic employers will do what they can to help staff thrive—both with professional development opportunities and with compensation that reflects the value of their hard work.

Mentorship can show employees that you care about their professional aspirations and want to help them achieve their potential. Giving them a chance to build new skills and rewarding the desire to learn can help retain high-quality staff.

Compensation should be commensurate with the value employees provide, too. Paying workers a consistent, livable wage shows how important they are to your business. It’s also a smart strategy in a high-turnover industry that’s still struggling with a labor shortage—a well-compensated employee will have fewer reasons to look elsewhere. Offering health insurance to your team can be a challenge, but overlooking this benefit could end up costing you more if top talent moves on.

Recognizing unconscious bias among the team

Restaurant work often brings together people from a wide range of backgrounds. Making sure everyone on the team is treated equally, with dignity and respect, is essential. Incorporate diversity, equity, and inclusion resources like these into training to get staff on the same page.

Emphasize kindness on the team

Creating a positive workplace culture for your staff can help build a stronger, more empathetic team. This can look like providing opportunities to give back to the community, connecting team members with mental health services, and structuring schedules that allow employees to have a life outside of work. And when you notice a staff member committing an act of kindness, be sure to acknowledge them.

Expect positive results

Teaching empathy can create a more positive workplace culture that’s better for everyone. It can also address recruiting challenges like high turnover and trouble finding quality candidates.

Current staff will be more likely to refer talent your way if they love their workplace and feel respected and valued. Supporting staff with good wages and benefits is also more likely to attract Gen Z candidates, who are more likely to switch jobs if the gig doesn’t meet their expectations.

Teaching the team to show empathy to guests

Practicing empathy creates more positive and productive guest interactions. Approaching guests with empathy can help your team handle everyday hospitality and customer complaints with better results.

An empathetic team can translate into higher revenue, too. Research shows that the companies that rank highest in empathy generated 50% more revenue than those that ranked lowest, according to Forbes.

Image depicts a group of diners greeting each other.

Using empathy to level up hospitality is a beneficial arrangement for everyone. | Credit: Getty Images.

Examples of empathy in practice

The same skills and principles that help the team show empathy to each other apply to showing guests empathy. Here’s how the skills apply to offering hospitality and how you can explain them to the team.

Active listening to guests
Interactions with guests in the dining room directly mirror the way staff talks to each other. Because so much communication with guests happens online, you’ll need to train people on how active listening applies to monitoring and responding to online feedback, which is a key to reputation management.

Respond to online reviews with an appropriate, personalized message to connect with guests and show them you value their feedback. You wouldn’t respond to a long, detailed review with a terse, one-sentence comment. By addressing positive and negative feedback in a respectful way, you show everyone you’re listening.

Showing guests positive body language
Make everyone aware of specific body language that sends the wrong message to guests. Slouching, avoiding eye contact, crossed arms, or carrying on side conversations are all examples of what not to do. It’s worth talking to the team about facial expressions, which can be tough to control when a guest complains or becomes difficult. Guests should always be approached with a smile, good posture, and direct eye contact.

Building rapport with guests
Putting yourself in a guest’s shoes can highlight ways to deepen the connection between your business and your customers. “Stealth” loyalty programs can be a great way to engage your most loyal guests and reward them for your support—without them having to join an official loyalty program. Use data from your reservation software or POS system to identify your best customers, then develop strategies to reach them, such as email marketing campaigns or special event invites.

There are plenty of other ways to build relationships with guests before, during, and after their dining experience. Engaging with guests on social media, offering wine based on their preferences, and following up with a personalized message after a visit can all strengthen that bond.

Avoid unconscious bias with guests
Every guest who walks into your restaurant should be treated with the same high level of hospitality and respect. Train staff to address every customer as if they’re a VIP. Teach them not to make judgments based on factors like appearance, clothing, ability, names, or other factors.

It’s not just the right thing to do. Avoiding bias in guest interactions can help protect your restaurant from discrimination lawsuits.

Empathy pays off

A happy guest is one who will come back to your restaurant over and over again—and even sing your praises to friends, family members, and coworkers. Teaching empathy in your restaurant will create a more positive experience for your guests. That translates into repeat visits, a stronger reputation, and higher revenues for your restaurant.

Learning how to practice empathy in your restaurant can be a challenge, but it’s the right thing to do—for your team, for your guests, and for your business. Remember that the time and effort you invest to improve workplace culture and deliver outstanding hospitality can only benefit your business in the long run.

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