Empathy is a critical trait, both in business and in life. It helps us to connect to others in a meaningful way while building strong foundations of trust and understanding. During this challenging time, more than ever, empathy is essential to connecting on both a personal and business level.
In financial services, trust and understanding are key to a successful relationship — and this begins with empathy. Since we are in a position to advocate for our clients, we must exercise empathy and set expectations accordingly to help our clients achieve their goals. So let’s explore the concept of empathy.
What is Empathy?
Simply put, empathy is the ability to sense the emotions of others. You could also say that it’s the ability to imagine what another person might be feeling or going through.
From a psychological standpoint, there are three types of empathy:
- Cognitive empathy is emotionally neutral. It recognizes and understands what the other person is feeling, but it does not require emotional engagement. From a business perspective, cognitive empathy can help an associate gauge a customer’s mood, helping them set the tone for the interaction, but it doesn’t go much deeper than that.
- Emotional empathy actively shares the feelings of another person, beyond simply knowing how they feel, to create a genuine connection. However, this type of empathy can be overwhelming to some people as there is a tendency to get too wrapped up in the problems of others. If you feel that you can’t resolve the situation, it can be emotionally painful.
Even though it requires caution, some emotional empathy is a positive thing in business as it encourages honesty and helps to build trust.
- Compassionate empathy combines concern, shared emotions, and action. For example, say a customer is upset about a situation. You respond to their anger by first acknowledging their hurt and sharing or mirroring their feelings. You offer practical support and advice on how to get past the situation and suggest actions that will eliminate or mitigate the damage.
Empathy vs. Sympathy
Though it is often confused with sympathy, empathy is quite different.
When you sympathize with another person, you generally feel concern for them and maybe even sense that they could be better off in some way. The other person feels one way, and you feel something entirely different. Empathy, on the other hand, involves a shared perspective. While sympathy can become empathy, it’s not always the case.
When we sympathize, it’s like saying, “I hear you.” When we empathize, it’s more like, “I feel your pain.” Ultimately, most people want to be validated. They want to know that what they are thinking or feeling is legitimate and that’s something that sympathy alone cannot promise.
Empathy Can Be Learned
If empathy doesn’t come easily for you, you’re not alone. It’s not easy to open yourself up and make an emotional commitment to somebody you don’t know very well. If this sounds like you, don’t worry – it’s not an impossible situation. While some people are not naturally empathetic, it is a skill that can be learned.
First, you will need to set aside your personal bias and step into the other person’s shoes. Seeing things through another person’s eyes helps you connect to their experience. With insight into why they are speaking or behaving a certain way, you can develop a more meaningful rapport.
When you act as an advocate for your clients, empathy is essential to establishing expectations and setting goals successfully.
Having empathy for your current and prospective clients puts you square in their corner. From this standpoint, you will reach accord—and your objectives—much more quickly, and often without a great deal of effort.
Here are some tips to help you cultivate and express empathy:
- Understand their pain points. Show them, anecdotally, that you’ve been there and that you truly “get” them. Avoid expressing sympathy with phrases like “I know how you feel.” Instead, show them that you have been in a similar situation before and tell them how it made you feel. Ask them if it’s the same for them. Make a personal connection over a shared experience. Regardless of whether you agree with their viewpoint or not, continue to move the conversation forward with questions like “How can I help?”
- Listen first. You’ll never learn anything about somebody if you’re the one doing all the talking. Stop selling and listen. Active listening goes beyond what you hear; it also takes body language, facial expressions, and other non-verbal signaling into account. You may have to take notes or provide feedback during your conversation. Your feedback— whether it’s a nod, a smile, leaning in, or a verbal comment—should encourage the individual to keep talking.
- Learn how to read emotions. Being able to recognize emotions in others will help direct the way forward. You’ll know when you’re on the right track or when to pivot. Learning how to respond appropriately is key. For example, if the client is venting, he or she might just need to let off some steam. If you try to interject with a solution before they are done, it will be the equivalent of throwing gasoline on a fire. Granted, emotions are not always black and white, but practice makes perfect.
- Put yourself in their shoes. Even if you don’t personally share your customer’s perspective, putting yourself in their shoes will help you see the situation from where they stand. Only when you genuinely understand their point of view will you be able to offer a solution.
- Know their priorities. Every client has a list of priorities. If you make them your priorities, your empathetic connection will be aligned. Listen to what they are, and address them in the same order – essentially, you want to mirror them. This approach will reassure the client that you know what they want to accomplish, and you’re ready to help them make it happen.
- Accept their viewpoint. Your client’s interpretation of a situation might not be aligned with yours, but you don’t have to agree with them to have empathy. Accepting their viewpoint changes your perspective and will, in all likelihood, help you make a more conscious assessment of the situation. The goal here is to come up with a solution, and this approach can help you see ways forward that you might otherwise overlook.
- Restate their problem. Restating the client’s problem ensures you are on the right track. It also reiterates that you have been actively listening to what they had to say. You might open with “So, let me see if I understand this correctly …” and finish by asking whether your interpretation was accurate. This is critical, as you don’t want to waste time (yours or your client’s) by offering products that don’t align with their goals.
- Ask the client’s permission before you proceed. Asking permission to move ahead is a critical step as it reaffirms that you and the client are on the same page. Though this step seems like it should be a question, it can be framed as a statement like, “I have some ideas that I think may help.” At this stage, they may invite you to move forward, at which point you can present your ideas. If they need to discuss the matter further, it may require a return to the beginning of the conversation to realign and reconnect.
In conclusion, there is no one “right” way to exhibit empathy. However, in business, the ability to see things from perspectives other than your own is an aptitude to cultivate.
Primarily, it’s about recognizing what another person wants and needs, so whatever you do or say must benefit the other person in some way. Empathetic people are seen as trustworthy, caring, and easy to relate to, which makes it easy to develop strong, enduring customer relationships.
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