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CW 129: Julie Podewitz

Solving the Office Puzzle: What watching The Office can teach us about senior living sales.

During this series Julie Podewitz takes a deep dive into how to solve the occupancy puzzle by identifying the problem, determining strategy, what actions to take, and how to get there.

These episodes narrow in on a key area of the occupancy puzzle, what contributes to the outcome, what action to put in place, and how to coach others.

In today’s episode on empathy, Julie Podewitz dives into the fictitious office of Dunder Mifflin from television’s, “The Office.”


You might feel completely different giving a similar situation or your life experience may look vastly different from theirs, but neither negates having empathy for another.


Welcome to the Contributor Wednesday series on the Bridge the Gap Network. This series is sponsored by Peak Senior Living by Functional Pathways. Each week you’ll hear from a thought leader discussing topics that are relevant and impactful to the senior living industry.


Welcome to Bridge the Gap contributor Wednesday. I’m Julie Podewitz, CEO and founder of Grow Your Occupancy, BTG ambassador and author of Solving the Occupancy Puzzle, a Senior Living Sales Leader Playbook. I’m glad to be back with you for part five of solving the Occupancy Puzzle. In this series, we look each week at a piece of the occupancy puzzle. What factors are causing the problem, what determines outcomes and steps to take to improve them. “Solving the Case” was the subject of my last episode, Knowing When to Solve. In other words, closing at the right time after you’ve learned enough to give solid advice. I used the example of great detectives who solve their case by connecting with the suspect, using body language, asking tough questions, listening and going for the close to get the confession. My favorite is NYPD Blue, an oldie, but a goody. If you haven’t listened to episode four, listening to it now will help all of this make more sense. 


In this episode, we go from the interrogation room to The Office, the television series, not the room in which you might do most of your work. The US version of the sitcom, The Office, features a character expertly played by Steve Carell. Michael Scott is the office manager of a paper products company, Dunder Mifflin. The show is filmed documentary style. The premise is a documentary crew wants to produce a movie that depicts middle America work life. The characters speak to the audience as well as interact with one another, and in spite of what might sound like a boring premise, hilarity ensues. For over 10 seasons, it ranks on top of many people’s all time favorite list and is one of Netflix’s most watched series. Much of the comedy comes from the fact that Michael Scott is emotionally obtuse and completely lacks empathy.


While mostly goodhearted and well intentioned, his lack of empathy causes him to say outrageous things, insulting things, even racist and misogynistic things. The comedy comes in its absurdity. In a typical real life situation, a person like Michael Scott wouldn’t be tolerated, let alone well liked. It’s the genius that is Steve Carelll who can pull off playing a character with zero empathy while remaining likable. We pull for him. We want him to find love, to have friends, to finally “get it.” It’s funny because it’s so absurd. It’s often painful for me to watch him in situations because I feel so uncomfortable with a character’s responses and lack of intuitiveness and connection to others. In terms of empathy in the world of senior living sales, someone completely opposite of Michael Scott has the highest rate of success. I mean, can you imagine searching for senior living at a crisis time of life and getting Michael Scott as your sales counselor? A recipe for disaster, no doubt.


But I’m not so sure how off we are at times. I mean, a prospect is looking for information, reaches out, asks for pricing or brochure or floor plans, but what they really want is a lifeline. Someone to help them, to advise. They need to feel seen and heard, but instead are faced with a laundry list of services and amenities, phrases and acronyms they don’t understand, decisions they’re not ready to make, and maybe a brochure mailed that does not connect with them and prompt any forward decision. Definitely not Netflix binge worthy. Oxford defines empathy as the ability to understand and share the feelings of others. Well known author, social and behavior researcher, Brené Brown, explains empathy like this – empathy is connecting with people so we know we’re not alone when we are in struggle.


Empathy is a way to connect to the emotion another person is experiencing. It doesn’t require that we have experienced the same situation they are going through. I’m gonna repeat that last part. It doesn’t require that we have experienced the same situation they are going through. I would add that empathy requires us to acknowledge another’s thoughts, opinions, and journey as their own. You don’t have to agree to empathize with another person. You might feel completely different giving a similar situation or your life experience may look vastly different from theirs, but neither negates having empathy for another. In other words, I hear you or I understand, versus I know how you feel, or I feel the same way.


Empathizing requires great listening skills. It’s tough to empathize with someone if you don’t understand their story, what they’re going through and how they feel. How they feel. The thing with listening is that most consider themselves great listeners, but the truth is most are not. Interruptions are the norm. In conversations, we hold our thought or reaction instead of actively listening in the moment. Often we don’t wait to talk, we just jump right in. How does interrupting affect communication? I’ve been researching this and would like to share some information with you. Studies show that interrupting tells the person speaking that you don’t care what they have to say. You think that your voice is more important or don’t have time to really listen to them. It can even make it seem that you weren’t really listening properly at all and were just waiting for your moment to interject.


To me, that’s the exact opposite of the discovery process and the entire customer experience that we desire for our customers in senior living sales. As a side note, according to researchers over the course of a three minute conversation, men interrupted women 2.1 times. In contrast, during conversations of the same duration, men interrupted other men only 1.8 times, and women on average interrupted men only once. With the focus on women and leadership in our industry, I found that very interesting. As a side note, I actually had a male colleague tell me once that the reason he interrupted me all the time is that I talk too fast and that I am three steps ahead in my thought process. In fact, blaming me for his poor listening skills. Well, that’s a podcast for another time, so let’s go back to a couple more studies about active listening and empathy.


The youth organization, a UK study about the psychology of interrupting, like why we interrupt. We’re psychologically wired to tie up loose ends. Interrupting can feel good because it allows you to neatly tie up a thought that you feel might get lost or transformed as the conversation continues. Often when someone else is speaking, we’re not listening so much as waiting for our turn. A UC Berkeley study on the psychological impact of interruption, In this one moment, this point of interruption, we lose our focus and our progress stops. Our attention is ripped away. Our brain abruptly shifts. Our momentum is gone and with it any feeling of satisfaction. How satisfying is the customer’s experience if they are not seen and heard, attention ripped away, momentum lost. I mean, how do we expect them to take our advice to sort through the logistical and emotional maze with loss of focus and progress stopped?


I can’t help but connect strong listening skills to strong empathy. How can we empathize if we haven’t actively listened? Seek to understand. I argue that both listening and empathy are skills. Skills that can be improved with awareness and practice. Like anything, we first must decide what we want to improve. If listening skills is one, here are a couple of tips. Number one, commit. Decide this is your area of opportunity. Number two, choose one area of awareness at a time. For example, commit to allowing the other person to finish their sentence or thought before jumping in. Pause before you start talking. responding with a nod or a verbal confirmation of understanding or a reflective statement before adding to the conversation. Statements such as, “You’re going through a lot,” “This must be difficult,” “You’re taking on a lot,” “Seems like you have a big decision to make,” “Sounds like you and your mom are at odds,” “You are a very caring person,” “You are upset right now,” “There is a conflict you’re facing,” “You and your coworker are not getting along.”


Choose one action or accountability checkpoint. How will you measure success? So to recap, you make a decision. We commit. We are aware. Tell someone. We hold ourselves more accountable if we’ve told another person or asked another to help us, ask somebody else, you know, “I’m practicing my listening skills, please let me know how you feel I’m doing. My first thing is to, you know, cut back on interrupting, allowing others to finish talking before giving my opinion or offering advice. Can you let me know how you feel I’m doing?” 


Growing empathy – acknowledge each journey is unique. Everyone has a story, a life experience, a background, hardships, rewards, highs and lows. One is not better than another. Just because you can’t see yourself in the picture does not mean they can’t. Example, selling a studio or a shared apartment. I’ve heard sales counselors say to me, “Well, I could never live in a small space like this, or I could never have a roommate.” Remember, it’s not about you and how you feel about this or what you are comfortable with. It’s about your customer. Some of the challenge with empathy may come into play because senior living sales requires connecting with others. Choosing to leave home and move to a community is a very emotional decision. One most do not take lightly, and many consider for a long time going back and forth with the decision and most get stuck in the sales funnel, never moving to a community at all. Right now, the statistic is about 85% of those who inquire, never move in. Connection builds trust and people are more likely to take advice from those they trust. Thus, sales counselors starting to build relationships at the beginning of the customer’s search by doing great discovery, learning about their customer, their life story, what’s motivating them to begin or continue their search to reach out, etc.


Connection happens when one relates to another or when there’s chemistry, right? A mutual interest, a common sense of humor, an unspoken sense of comfort. We’ve all had the experience of meeting someone and you know, a week or two later feeling like we’ve known them forever. My husband Jim and I got engaged three months after our first date, and we got married eight months later and 23 years later we’re still married and happily so. I’d never believe it if I didn’t experience it. We also have the experience of working with or being related to or having to associate with those that we can’t really relate to it all, whose opinions and life experiences are completely opposite of ours or someone, for whatever reason, we just don’t take to or like very much. Because of this, we may feel more empathetic to that first group of people and be less patient and perhaps less kind or fair to that second group.


In senior living sales and in leadership positions of all kinds, we need to demonstrate the same level of active listening and empathy to everyone. All of our prospects, influencers, referral partners and community members deserve our very best selves. The self that shows up open-minded and empathetic, the self that shows up determined to focus on the person in front of them and not be distracted by phones, notifications, and those mental rabbit holes we’ve all gone down, myself included, “Oh my gosh, I have so much to do and I’m feeling overwhelmed. I’m not gonna be able to get everything done” or “what’s coming up next on my calendar” mindset. This all takes commitment and practice and starts with awareness and a decision. A decision to improve our sales results by first showing up as a connector, a good listener and a person who has empathy for others.


A person who asks for help or asks another,” How well do you think I listen?” or “how often do I interrupt you during conversations” and not being defensive about the response or input. Interruptions don’t only erode connection and trust and empathy. Studies show that the average worker is interrupted somewhere between 4 to 12 times every hour. That’s one interruption every 15 minutes in the best case scenario. There’s a reason that distractions threaten your work output. According to a University of California Irvine study, “It takes an average of 23 minutes and 15 seconds to get back to the task at hand.” In the world of senior living sales, results are a combination of activity and skill, what is done and how well it’s done. Activities such as phone calls, tours, home visits, and outreach appointments. Skills such as prospected tour and tour-to-sale conversions and relationship building skills like listening and empathy.


It takes discipline to get into the “zone.” You know, the zone of making calls, the zone of strategic planning, the zone of doing outreach, the zone of concentration, the zone of writing podcasts. How productive can a person be with 4 to 12 interruptions an hour? This might sound ridiculous, but think about how many times your phone pings or your laptop pings with a notification, each time an interruption. So we can’t blame all of our interruptions on our coworkers. We interrupt ourselves plenty. I know some heavy stuff this week, but as much fun as our business is and how rewarding it is helping prospects decide to make our community their new home, it is also a huge responsibility as others put their trust in making the biggest decision of their life in our hands. Don’t they deserve all of our attention, listening and empathy? Once they do, we are in their zone.

We are truly able to give them advice, advice to make a decision, or to take a next step that makes sense to them. The advice comes from understanding where your customer is and their emotional and logistical journey. You “get them” enough to “give them” advice that makes sense. Trust is built, connections deepen, and once again, we are rewarded by helping a prospect make the decision that will enhance their life and ours, and once again, celebrate that we work in the best industry in the world, senior living. 

Deep down, Michael Scott would be proud, or more likely, Pam and Jim. Thanks for listening to this week’s BTG Contributor Wednesday. I’m Julie Pottz. Please connect with me at and on LinkedIn or YouTube.



CW 129: Julie Podewitz