As financial advisors, we often experience the privilege of being among the first to be called when a spouse passes, when a child enters rehab, or a parent moves into memory care. In these difficult life transitions, how are you showing up? Do you jump to the quantitative solution, or do you hold space for your client's pain?
"We are not thinking machines that feel; we are feeling machines that think.
- António R. Damásio | Self Comes to Mind
Meeting the emotion of our clients is the first step when we're helping them through life's challenges. We don't need to solve it; we don't need to cheer them up. The best thing we can do for clients at that moment is to offer empathy and connection.In difficult times, what eases pain isn't a perfectly crafted response; it's empathy and meaningful connection Click To Tweet
What is Empathy?
"Empathy is the ability to imagine yourself in someone else's position and to intuit what that person is feeling. It is the ability to stand in others' shoes, to see with their eyes, and to feel with their hearts."
- Daniel Pink | A Whole New Mind
Dr. Brené Brown explains that there are two types of empathy: cognitive empathy (perspective taking), which is your ability to recognize and understand your client's emotions, and affective empathy (experience sharing), which is your emotional attunement to the client's experience. Her research shows that a thoughtful combination of these two skills is at the heart of meaningful connection.
Dr. Meghaan Lurtz suggests that advisors proceed with caution regarding affective empathy; too much can lead to burnout and unconscious bias in how we serve our clients. She recommends that advisors use affective empathy sparingly and instead focus on cognitive empathy.
"…advisors can employ cognitive empathy to connect with their clients by understanding what they feel, yet without necessarily experiencing the same emotions as their clients that can take a real emotional toll."
- Meghaan Lurtz | Kitces.com
If empathy has a cousin, it's connection.
"Connection is the energy that exists between people when they feel seen, heard and valued; when they can give and receive without judgment; and when they derive sustenance and strength from the relationship."
- Brené Brown | Atlas of the Heart
Advisors in the MQ Community strive to develop this type of connection in their client relationships. They know that in difficult times, what eases pain isn't a perfectly crafted response; it's empathy and meaningful connection.
The Four Attributes of Empathy
Nursing scholar Theresa Wiseman studied empathy across helping professions and developed four attributes of empathy. I firmly believe that financial planning is a helping profession, and these attributes are as relatable in our field as they are in psychology, healthcare, and social work.
1. Perspective taking
What it is: you're looking to understand where the client is coming from and what their experience is like; you must be able to recognize their perspective as being true from them.
What it sounds like in practice: "How are you feeling right now?"
2. Staying out of judgment
What it is: you're listening to understand, not to assess; you're actively pushing away your thoughts, biases, and assumptions and resisting the urge to jump to conclusions.
What it sounds like in practice: "You're in a lot of pain here. I can feel it.
3. Recognizing emotion
What it is: reaching something inside yourself to help you identify and connect with what the client might be feeling, then putting that aside to listen to their experience fully.
What it sounds like in practice: "I understand how devastating that can be. It sounds like you feel helpless."
4. Communicating back the emotion you see
What it is: reflecting what you heard, which validates their feelings, demonstrating that you accept, acknowledge, and understand them.
What it sounds like in practice: "This is such a difficult situation. I appreciate you trusting me enough to share. Let me summarize to see if I've heard you right…"
The Magic Question
"Postpone result/solution thinking until later; it's through connection that solutions materialize – empathy before education."
- Marshall Rosenberg| Nonviolent Communication
After you have expressed empathy for your client, it's still not time to jump into problem-solving. The next step is crucial to ensuring your client feels heard and empowered.
One of the most powerful questions you can ask after clients share something hard is: what does support look like from me right now? It might be "Help me understand the next steps," "Can we meet tomorrow morning to talk?" or "Call me next week." No matter their answer, you've given them a gift: an empathic ear, a spark of caring connection, and a little bit of control in a time when that might feel hard to come by.
- Brenna Baucum, CFP®