May 1, 2002

Hear, Hear!

We like to think we're good listeners, but many cl

In our busy, fast-paced lives, many of us race around from dawn to dusk, talking on cell phones while we drive, reading e-mail while we simultaneously answer telephone calls, and mentally reviewing all the other items on our to-do lists while trying to wrap up each client meeting as efficiently as possible.

Maybe you remember a song from the Broadway show West Side Story with the following lines: "There's a time for us, time together with time to spare, time to learn, time to care ... somewhere." This song wafted up from the recesses of my mind when I read about the Investment Advisor study that showed many clients do not feel their financial advisors listen to them (see the December 2001 cover story, "Listen Up.") If you need to make more time for learning and caring, or to brush up on the tools and techniques of making your clients feel heard, this column is for you.

A young widow whose husband was killed in a car crash has come to me for some financial planning help. But when we get together, all she wants to talk about are her emotions--her grief, fears, and so on--and avoids financial topics. I'm pretty logical, not a touchy-feely type. How can I give her the financial advice she came for? People feel jarred when they are given important advice before they are finished sharing their thoughts and feelings with the advice giver. My reading of this situation is that your client knows you have not listened fully to her, and therefore she is not ready to move on to accept your guidance.

To become a better listener, consider a simple but powerful "mirroring" technique taught by psychotherapist and author Harville Hendrix. Step one is simply to mirror what the other person has just said. Don't paraphrase it, just repeat it in a sympathetic, nonjudgmental tone of voice.

For example, if your client says, "I feel like I've been run over by a Mack truck," you would just say something like "Since your husband died so unexpectedly, you feel like you've been run over by a Mack truck." Then ask, "Is there more?" If playing back her comments this way feels too artificial, you might wait until she's shared several thoughts and feelings and play back all of them, as closely as you remember them.

People tend to feel safe when they feel they are respectfully being heard. So I invite you to risk mirroring back what your clients are saying, and then ask them, "Did I get it?" and "Is there more?" and see what happens.

Mirroring is the first part of an empathetic listening process that can be a powerful tool for healing. Read on to learn about other aspects of this method for bonding with clients and others in your life.

Several of my clients still seem so traumatized by the market's plunge that they're hesitant to make any portfolio decisions. I'm not having much luck calming them and reassuring them that I know what they feel. How can I get through to them? You may not be "getting through" because these clients feel they haven't gotten through to you. I would begin by mirroring their words to you about their emotional state. (See answer to previous question.)

When you believe you have heard them fully, try validating their feelings by saying something like "That makes sense to me, considering what happened to you last year." If you feel you can't say, "That makes sense" because you believe they are reacting irrationally, keep asking them to help you understand. For example, you might say, "Can you tell me more about what happened to you and your money during the worst of times?" As these clients share more of their emotions and experiences, you may finally be able to tell them that their outlook makes sense in view of its context.

Helping your clients feel heard and then validated will build a strong bond of trust. Once your clients feel heard "as they wish to be heard," they will be much better disposed to take action with their portfolio.

I'm trying to work with a couple who are intensely angry with one another about their different estate planning wishes. The wife wants to leave most of their wealth to their two children. The husband says that leaving the kids so much money will spoil them. He insists that most of their assets should go to an institution that nurtured him as a child. How can I help them resolve this dilemma? Again, I believe the key to success may be to make sure both parties feel you have listened to and fully heard them.

In working with this couple, I would tell them that you'll take a few minutes to hear them one at a time, until each spouse feels completely understood. The first step is to listen and mirror what each person says, carefully and respectfully. Once you repeat what that person has said, summarize everything and ask whether you got it right. If the client says, "Yes, that's it exactly," then go to the next step. If not, ask, "Is there more?" Then mirror that new part back to the client.

Right after the client agrees that you have heard correctly, validate what he or she has said. For the wife, this might mean saying something like "That makes sense, considering that you feel leaving a legacy for your kids is an important way of expressing your love." In the husband's case, you might say, "That makes sense, since you fear that giving too much money to your kids wouldn't be good for them, and you feel so grateful to this institution for giving you the tools to succeed in the world."

Now take the third step: making your respectful listening more empathetic. For instance, you might say to these conflicted clients, "I imagine you may be feeling a little sad, kind of hurt, and maybe even lonely at the gulf between your priorities." Ask whether that accurately describes each party's feelings.

Once you have mirrored each spouse's views with truly compassionate listening, they may feel you have created a respectful and safe space that allows them to reach a win-win compromise. They may even be able to sit down with their kids, or write them a letter, explaining that the decision to leave some of the money to them and the rest to the cherished institution is a choice that both parents believe in.

After losing a couple of close business colleagues in the World Trade Center attack, I find I don't want to get close to other people I have to contact every day. Yesterday a bond trader I've known for a long time asked me if I had something on my mind, because I wasn't really listening when he told me about his kid in Little League. I don't like being this way, but what can I do about it? Considering the trauma of your recent losses, it's no wonder you are pushing away former friends and trying to hold them at arm's length. All intimacy, closeness, or connection carries within itself the possibility of hurt and loss--it's a sad but universal part of life.

Though the distance you have created is perfectly normal and understandable, the fact that it's beginning to bother you is a good sign. You may be ready now to share your feelings with a counselor, a spouse, or someone else who can help you mourn your losses and let go of some of the pain you are undoubtedly carrying. It would be a courageous act to tell your bond trader colleague what you've been going through, and express your regrets that you've been pushing him away to avoid the possibility of more pain in the future.

In the meantime, be gentle with yourself. Do what you need to do to heal and soothe your soul. When you are ready, encourage yourself to risk opening your heart to friends and colleagues so that even more healing can occur.

And if you're feeling bad about yourself for cutting off your connections to others, try to practice compassionate listening to your own inner thoughts and feelings. Remember that humans are somewhat fragile creatures who tend to pull into their shells when hurt or endangered. (What's a turtle's shell for, after all?) We need time to feel safe enough to emerge into the light again. If you take it slow and steady, I believe you'll eventually come out of your shell.

I frequently give financial seminars to new investors. Generally, I'm considered very entertaining and lively, and have funny visuals. Normally when I give these seminars, no one leaves the room. But since the awful events of September 11, I feel like I've lost my edge, that I'm not connecting with my audience. What should I do? In these trying times, many speakers feel challenged to connect in new and deeper ways. We and our audiences are fighting anxieties that come from losing a sense of safety in the world (however illusory it may have been).

I suggest varying your presentation to build in many more learning modes that involve the audience and help them feel you are truly listening to their concerns about the future.

For example, some people learn best through listening to lectures, others through visuals. Still others prefer to talk in small groups about their personal insights and realizations, while some learn via kinesthetic "experiencing of the material in their bodies" through role-playing and similar techniques.

One simple practice is to ask questions that evoke audience response, and write down and then display the exact words of participants' answers. People feel respected and heard when their words are mirrored and put into print for everyone else to see. You might also add an exercise where the audience breaks up into groups of two or three people to talk about your learning points. Then reconvene all the participants to share what the individual groups have discovered or discussed. Build rapport by jotting down their words verbatim on the board.

Good luck in deepening your connection to your audience--and to yourself as well!

I've always prided myself on being a good listener, carefully paying attention to my clients' goals and feelings. But lately, several clients in a row have failed to act on my recommendations for no apparent good reason. What gives? If they are all balking "for no good reason," it suggests to me that you have not really heard their deepest concerns and fears. Try practicing the mirroring technique I've explained above, playing back everything they say quite literally. Be sure to ask, "Is there more?" and wait patiently for the answer. You might even ask, "Is there an underlying concern or fear we've overlooked?"

In your body language, tone of voice, and facial expression, be careful not to communicate any desire to move along too quickly to closure and action. If you seem impatient, your clients will pick up on this and not feel safe enough to tell you all of what is going on. And until they do, they won't be ready to act on any of your recommendations, no matter how intelligent or appropriate.

In a culture that rewards fast action and doesn't value time spent in reflection and stillness, it's a challenge to carve out enough time to listen until your clients feel safe enough to think rationally and take action. To slow down your internal clock, it may help to practice meditation, yoga, or Tai Chi, to go on long walks, sail, golf, garden, or otherwise slow down and smell the roses.

What's more, while you're learning to listen to your clients more deeply, empathetically, and respectfully, you'll probably find you're listening to yourself that way, too. This is truly time well spent.

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