Sympathy, Empathy and Compassion: The Pillars of Better Client Relationships

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Put succinctly, emotions and finances go hand in hand.

Many emotions are associated with financial decisions—so many that clients and prospects may have a hard time talking about it with anyone in their circles, and often even with an expert like a financial adviser.

So what can advisers do to enable their clients to circumvent emotional barriers and make them feel more at ease in talking about their dreams, need and fears?

There is an abundance of literature offering instructions, tips and guidelines on this topic. Frequently it is stated that exercising sympathy, empathy and compassion toward clients can help advisers attain a more in-depth understanding of their clients’ needs and emotions and develop more solid relationships. However, the often-inappropriate use of these three terms seems to lead to confusion. Below, I provide more accurate definitions of the terms and how they relate to client relationships.

Sympathy
Sympathy is feeling compassion, sorrow or pity for the hardships that another person encounters. We feel sympathy toward a client experiencing an unusual chain of negative family events. However, sympathy is characterized by a degree of emotional distance because we are not experiencing the pain ourselves. Ultimately, sympathy is the ability to express culturally acceptable condolences to someone else’s plight. Sympathy, however, fosters disconnection. This is because it sparks in us the desire to identify a silver lining in the situation—lamentably and in some cases a banal cliché—which does not really help relieve an individual’s suffering.

Empathy
Empathy goes beyond sympathy. While the latter focuses on finding a response that does not necessarily help make things better, empathy aims at establishing an emotional connection with someone. Empathy makes us vulnerable, because to create a real emotional connection with the one who is suffering we must first connect with that part of ourselves that knows that feeling.

Subsequently, empathy forces us to experience some of the pains that the other person is experiencing. Research conducted by neuroscientist Giacomo Rizzolati, proves that about 20 percent of our neurons possess mirroring functions. Accordingly, when we witness another human being’s emotion through their body language, voice intonation or spoken word, those neurons dispatch signals that enable us to feel and know what that emotion is. For this reason, we do not have to work hard at developing empathy, as we have an inherent disposition to it. Real empathy requires being mindfully present with our clients and prospects, listening wholeheartedly to what they say, recognizing their emotions and reflecting them back.

Compassion
Compassion is empathy in action. The word compassion is composed of com (together with) and passion (to suffer). Despite the word’s etymology, exercising compassion does not mean that we have to suffer to help someone. A financial adviser just like a doctor can relieve suffering without having to experience a client/patient’s exact pain.

Compassionate listening may be hard to master, particularly when it requires listening to the suffering of others. The fact that we all experience pain and grief makes it very difficult for us to listen to others. To be able to truly listen to someone’s suffering, we need to first listen and transform the suffering that dwells within ourselves. The foundation of compassionate listening is self-awareness. This may sound paradoxical, but lacking clarity in our relationship with ourselves severely impairs our ability to improve relationships with others.

Compassion is the ability to listen in a receptive, generous, supportive and non-judgmental way. Ultimately, it is the practice of abandoning our self-oriented, reactive and opinionated thinking and expanding our awareness to make room for the suffering of another human being. A client or prospect brings more than words to a meeting. There is a plethora of unexpressed feelings, anxieties, fears and thoughts that only compassion enables you to recognize, understand and speak about.

I exhort you to master the art of compassion. In addition to being pleasant and caring, compassion makes you trustworthy. Eventually, it will contribute to elevate your professional image, build enduring relationships and make a difference in your life and those of your clients.

Claudio PannunzioClaudio O. Pannunzio
President and Founder
i-Impact Group
Greenwich, Conn.

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