Many financial advisors find that expressing empathy can help them to bond with and strengthen their relationships with clients. Yet, while becoming emotionally invested in clients’ personal experiences can be an effective (and often enjoyable!) way for advisors to establish close relationships and friendships with them, when clients experience difficult and even traumatic experiences (e.g., panicking in response to extreme market volatility, or suffering from the loss or plight of a loved one), advisors may find themselves sharing the same emotions as their clients… such that they, too, suffer emotional distress, to the point that their own emotional well-being becomes jeopardized.
Notably, though, there are different forms of empathy, some of which don’t require experiencing the other person’s emotions. As while emotional empathy does involve personally experiencing the same emotions as someone else, cognitive empathy involves simply understanding the level and significance of someone else’s emotional experience, but on an intellectual level (sometimes referred to as ‘emotional intelligence’), without necessarily experiencing those emotions. And when coupled with compassion (which is a “concern to enhance the welfare of another who suffers or is in need” and which motivates us to take action to help someone), cognitive empathy can become a valuable tool for financial advisors to understand and help clients without experiencing the same emotional highs and lows their clients may be experiencing.
Another important caveat of emotional empathy is that it is often limited to individuals with whom we consider similar to ourselves; accordingly, if someone isn’t similar enough to us, we just might have less emotional empathy for that person. Which is important, as advisors who lead with empathy can unintentionally narrow their client base to only others who are similar to themselves, and actually make it more difficult to connect with other types of clients.
Advisors who want to connect with their clients, but reduce the emotional toll of an emotional empathy approach, and instead seek to implement more cognitive empathy and compassion into their client meetings, might consider exploring practices adopted from Compassion-Focused Therapy (CFT). What’s unique about the CFT approach is that it focuses on helping clients not just trace the past to how they arrived where they are, but instead to identify their strengths, current abilities, and their present opportunities, in order to identify ways to comfortably move forward through specific challenges they may be facing. Compassion-Focused Therapy can be especially helpful when working with clients in distress and is designed to support clients and accomplish change.
Ultimately, the key point is that advisors can employ cognitive empathy to connect with their clients by understanding what they feel, yet without necessarily experiencing the same emotions as their clients that can take a real emotional toll. And by practicing compassion, advisors can take the insights gleaned from cognitive empathy to take action to help and support their clients productively, with confidence that the help they are providing to their clients is not clouded by the emotional burdens they may have taken from their clients!