Do you really know how to express empathy to clients?

June 11, 2019 | Last updated on June 11, 2019
4 min read

“I know how you feel.”

If you’ve ever said these words to a client facing a challenging life transition, you might not have come across as empathetic as you think.

Such a comment creates an automatic, negative internal response from a client, because they likely feel you’re painting them with broad brushstrokes, said Dr. Amy D’Aprix, a life transitions expert who operates a consulting practice. She was a panellist at a session about serving clients presented at the national conference of the Canadian branch of the Society of Trust and Estate Practitioners (STEP Canada) last week in Toronto.

In particular, the session focused on senior clients as they face such issues as incapacity and widowhood.

While these life transitions are common, clients typically feel alone as they experience them, D’Aprix said, and she offered examples of appropriately empathetic statements that advisors can use so clients feel heard: “I’m so sorry,” “I can’t even imagine how you’re feeling” and “I can see this is a very hard time for you.” Effective empathetic statements are authentic and reflect the client’s experience, she said.

Empathizing must also be done at the right time. D’Aprix shared her four-part communication process, in which empathizing is the second step. The first step is listening—specifically for emotions, not just facts. Listening for emotions is necessary so advisors can subsequently empathize, she said.

The next step is reframing, which is a way to normalize the client’s experience, D’Aprix said. For example, when working with a widow, you can let her know that, in your experience working with other widows, clients often feel overwhelmed at first but gradually feel more in control as you and these clients complete financial tasks together.

The last step in D’Aprix’s communication process is taking action—something advisors are proficient at, potentially to the detriment of the other steps. But focusing on the other steps first—in other words, dealing with emotions—is important because “it’s hard for people to hear the practical until their emotional needs are met,” D’Aprix said. Further, she assured the audience that the first three steps don’t require a lot of time; rather, they help clients establish an appropriate mindset.

The mindset of advisors was highlighted by another panellist. Graham Webb, executive director at the Advocacy Centre for the Elderly, said senior clients want to receive the attention of “a real person, who is helpful, clear and unhurried”—a quote from the World Health Organization. He explained that seniors often have negative communication experiences, which he urged advisors to counteract. “We need [seniors] to know that when they’re speaking, we’re paying attention,” he said.

Those negative communication experiences can arise as seniors become challenged by advancing sensory, cognitive and physical challenges, Webb said. Further, research shows that physically attractive people garner greater attention when they speak—something Webb said he’s observed in the court room over his multi-decade legal career, and which might explain why a senior client wants an adult child or younger person to accompany and speak for them.

(Webb explained that this situation requires speaking to the client alone and ensuring they want someone else in the room while sensitive topics are discussed. Explaining to the client that they can speak to you confidentially also puts clients at ease to speak freely and honestly, he added.)

His tips for effective communication with seniors included offering large font sizes for reading materials, using simple words and short sentences, and offering language translation where required. Meeting spaces should be quiet and comfortable with appropriate lighting, which might mean dim lighting in some circumstances; and offices should be barrier-free and offer access to washrooms.

In fact, Webb lets clients know at the beginning of a meeting where the washrooms are, and he tells clients it’s OK to have a washroom break at any time. If clients aren’t comfortable, the meeting won’t be effective, he said.

Webb also uses the standard greeting of “How are you?” as more than a perfunctory conversation starter. “I want to know if my client is feeling well,” he said, adding that he records the client’s response in his notes. If they’re not feeling well, he makes the required accommodations or reschedules.

He also noted that hearing loss is the most common sensory loss, yet only 24% of older adults who would benefit from hearing aids have them. His organization keeps hearing-aid devices on hand, which he calls “transformative” for client meetings.

Calling your client by name is also important, he noted, starting by asking them how they’d like to be addressed.

Also read:

When your senior client wants to take on risk

When a senior client’s situation sparks suspicion

Proceed with caution when aging seniors request account changes