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.