I recently received a text message from my mother that I’ll never forget, letting me know a long-time family friend was checking her mail when a tree branch fell and killed her, instantly. Her legacy is a redemptive one, but her loss no less tragic.
In the same week, I heard from a colleague how her sister’s serious medical diagnosis had upended her life and work. And only two weeks prior to that, I was just settling into what I thought was a routine annual meeting with one of my most beloved clients when she floored me with the news that she’d been recently diagnosed with cancer, and would be enduring surgery shortly.
This confluence of tragic news stopped me in my tracks.
So much of the work we do as financial advisors teaches us to educate clients to adequately prepare for and respond to some of the worst news that befalls any of us–like death, disability and divorce. And the longer we spend in our careers, receiving news of painful circumstances that have befallen our clients can become commonplace, even predictable.
We’re well trained on the tactical and technical elements of this planning, but we get virtually no training at all regarding how to properly receive this news, how to process it ourselves, and how to help our clients through it.
My professional certifications and affiliations require 90 hours of continuing education in a host of technical disciplines every two years, but not a single hour on skillfully, compassionately navigating client grief.
We’re inundated with training to become technicians, but suffer a dearth of direction in the art of humanity.
Fortunately, Dr. Kelsey Crowe, co-author of the book There Is No Good Card For This: What To Say and Do When Life is Scary, Awful, and Unfair To People You Love, has dedicated her life (among others) to this pursuit. “Empathy is not about your job, it’s about your life,” she told me. “It’s about being a better human.”
So how can we be better humans when a client shares something painful?
First, don’t let the fear of getting it wrong lead you to inaction, Crowe said. A simple “I’m sorry” goes a long way, but for it to have its desired effect, it also can’t be rote. It needs to come from a place of having suffered yourself, so Crowe recommended making a mental note of having personally experienced something similar. BUT…
DON’T DO THIS:
While recalling that similar instance, our tendency is often to share it right then. But that’s likely a bad idea. While it could be part of a deepening discussion with the client down the road if yours is a relationship of greater familiarity, jumping directly into “Oh, I’m sorry…but I remember going through the same thing and here’s how it turned out” presumes too much.
It presumes you actually went through “the same thing”–which you didn’t. No two experiences are identical, nor are they received through the same lens or within the same context. But more importantly, a no doubt well-intended attempt to project a degree of familiarity with the aggrieved takes the attention away from the party who needs it most–them–and puts it, instead, on us.
Shut up. And listen. I know you’re tempted to move to the next instruction because this counsel doesn’t sound new. But we’re not just talking about any kind of listening here; we’re talking about empathic listening. Crowe describes empathic listening as “being quiet and letting the other person talk until they have finished talking.” Sounds simple, right? But it’s not easy. Just try it.
The big difference with empathic listening and what we typically do instead is that we simply don’t entertain thoughts of what we want to say next. It’s hard, I know! We should be wholly devoted to the listening process, allowing at least three seconds of complete silence before we say a word–and even then, we should just use a few words to encourage others to share more.
DON’T DO THIS:
Don’t buy into the notion that there’s a singular, life-changing gesture or parable of sage wisdom you need to discover and impart. An attempt to do so may actually inhibit the more important work of listening and expressing empathy.
Reach out–not necessarily physically, but emotionally, through the strategies mentioned above (and many others in Crowe’s book), and also practically, through whatever means possible. A handwritten note, an email, a text–heck, even an emoji–shows that you’re thinking of them, and that you care.
DON’T DO THIS:
Don’t assume that this momentary insight will naturally lead to action. Crowe lamented that while many high-profile companies, even the likes of Google and Facebook, have given lip-service to the benefits of empathy training, few have actually done it.
Similarly, you could read this article and enjoy the momentary endorphin rush of an “A-ha!” moment without taking the necessary steps to employ these strategies in your interactions. (Perhaps reading Crowe’s book would be a good first step to ensure you do.) And I could write this article feeling as though I’ve made a contribution without actually promoting empathy training where I live and work. Let’s hold each other accountable.
A Helping Profession
Like it or not, as financial advisors, ours is a helping profession. If individual client interaction isn’t your bag, that’s fine, but then you might want to consider accounting (just kidding) or managing a mutual fund (more seriously).
Financial advising has human interaction at its core, and when helping people plan for and deal with some of life’s most painful experiences is one of its central technical tenets, shouldn’t we be better prepared to navigate the emotions inherent in those circumstances?
Being better humans to our clients isn’t a niche or an elective, and it may just be the most important, meaningful and fulfilling work we do.
This commentary originally appeared March 18 on Forbes.com
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