6 Steps to Harnessing the Power of Empathy

Journal of Financial Planning: September 2018


Empathy is being aware of and sharing another person’s emotions and experiences. Listening with empathy means caring more about what someone is saying and feeling than what you want them to hear. It’s a critical skill for financial planners.

Empathetic planners feel their client’s pain and respond accordingly. Without empathy, it’s difficult to establish the emotional connection necessary to build trust in advisory relationships. Those who understand the feelings behind their client’s story do more than provide financial solutions; they build confidence.

Empathy isn’t built without listening. You can harness its power in advisory relationships by listening well. Here are six ways to do it:

1. Give Your Undivided Attention

Being open about personal finances takes courage because asking for financial advice makes people feel vulnerable. By the time a client gets to your desk, they’ve already come to trust you at some level. Let them know you value their trust by giving them your undivided attention. It’s hard to share with somebody who’s distracted.

If you’re thinking about your next meeting or wondering if your admin submitted the paperwork for a funds transfer, you’re not listening well, even if you would like to. If you’re multitasking instead of focusing singularly on your client, you are not giving them your undivided attention. And if you’re thinking more about what you have to say than what your client is sharing, you won’t hear what you need to hear. Maximize the time you have with clients by scheduling meetings for times you can listen well.

2. Learn Non-Verbal Cues

Not only should you learn to recognize non-verbal cues in your clients, but you also need to be aware of the non-verbal signals you might be sending. As Jennifer Wang writes in the Entrepreneur article, “7 Non-Verbal Cues and What They (Probably) Mean” (entrepreneur.com/article/201202), things like eye contact, a pleasant countenance, and an open posture (as opposed to crossed arms) will go a long way in cultivating open conversation. Whereas breaking eye contact, overly enthusiastic nodding (get to the point!), or shifting your feet toward the door during a meeting all show impatience and can cause clients to pull back. Your non-verbal behavior is significant.

Some people are open and eager to share their story no matter how messy or troublesome the details. Others are not. Be sensitive to non-verbal cues like fidgeting, avoiding eye contact, or a closed posture that reveal an internal struggle. Empathetic listening requires reading your client’s emotions so that you can tread with wisdom and care into a hotbed of feelings and reactions.

Understanding their struggle allows you to help your clients in ways that are important to them. And that builds credibility and trust.

3. Ask the Right Questions

Not all questions are good questions. Interrogating or grilling clients won’t facilitate open dialogue. Attempting to disclose your opinion or give advice by asking loaded questions is counterproductive. And asking questions that subtly marginalize clients or make them feel dumb or foolish will only alienate them.

The right questions are unbiased and sensitive. They should show that you are reliable, caring, and open. Think about what you ask before you ask it to make sure your questions help you serve your client better.

4. Make a Connection

You can only connect if you’re willing to listen. Your clients’ challenges might seem small to you, but they’re not to them. Resist the temptation to trivialize or skim over their pain points, and don’t be judgmental or condescending. Instead, try to understand their fears and frustrations by putting yourself in their place.

Verbal affirmations and positive non-verbal cues encourage clients to express themselves freely. Interrupting, changing course, interrogating, and teaching or advising while they share all hinder connection. Listening hard with both your heart and head establishes the emotional connection necessary for enduring advisory relationships.

Periodically clarify what you hear to make sure you understand what your client says. When they finish, summarize their story and ask related questions.

5. Don’t Be Afraid of Silence

Silence produces depth and weight; it’s key to empathetic listening. Silence lets your clients process their emotions and allows you to deliberate and consider options and solutions that can help address their challenges. Silence might feel awkward, but in empathetic listening, it’s golden.

6. Follow Up Soon

A personal and timely follow-up email or phone call letting your client know that you didn’t forget about them or their financial challenges when they walked out the door is an integral part of building empathetic relationships. If you listened empathetically during your meeting, you’ve made a connection. Following up lets your client know you value that connection. Don’t delegate the duty to someone else in your office or wait for follow-ups to come up on your to-do list.

Your clients need to believe you care about their success. Personal and timely follow-ups let clients know you are serious and reliable.

Empathetic listening dispels conflicts and harmonizes relationships. It builds trust, boosts confidence, facilitates cooperation, enables collaboration, opens communication, and dissipates fears. Michigan politician Bill Bullard is commonly quoted as saying that empathy is “the highest form of knowledge for it requires us to suspend our egos and live in another’s world.” It’s the heart of advisory relationships. 

Marguerita Cheng, CFP®, is CEO of Blue Ocean Global Wealth. She has served on the FPA Board of Directors and is a past president of FPA of the National Capital Area. In 2017 she was named the No. 3 Most Influential Financial Adviser in the Investopedia Top 100 and a Woman to Watch by InvestmentNews.

General Financial Planning Principles