SEATTLE – Early in her career, when Lisa Kirchenbauer sat down with a client, she'd collect data and tell them what to do.

"I was the expert," Kirchenbauer, president of Omega Wealth Management in Arlington, Va., told a couple of hundred planners at the FPA’s annual conference. "The challenge with that is clients don't always implement our advice."

Over time, Kirchenbauer says she developed radically different relationship skills that transformed the way she interacts with and serves her clients. Even planners who feel they lack empathy for their clients can learn to do better by trying the following 11 steps, she says.

  1. Be authentic. Ask yourself: "Who do I think I am supposed to be with clients?" Then ask yourself, "Who do you think you really are? Can I integrate the two?" Clients respond well to planners from whom they sense real authenticity, Kirchenbauer said. To that end, she urged them to "dare to be vulnerable."
  2. Listen deeply.  Start with your state of mind, she advised. Be aware of how you are feeling as you enter a client meeting: Are you irritated about the previous client meeting? Distracted? Preoccupied?

Center and prepare yourself to be fully present with that client.
To practice deep listening, Kirchenbauer asked planners in the audience to break into pairs and practice listening to one another about a particular challenge each experienced for two minutes. The burden of the exercise fell to the listener who could say nothing in response, while maintaining eye contact. "It is about being, not doing," she said.

At her firm, Kirchenbauer and her colleagues listen for precise wording from clients. They then incorporate that language into planning documents.

  1. Don't jump to conclusions. Kirchenbauer offered the example of a woman she knows who wanted to buy a beach house. The woman told Kirchenbauer that her planner had been trying to dissuade her from buying it, noting the unpredictable real estate market and questioning how often she would use it. Instead, Kirchenbauer said, she listened carefully to the woman explain why she wanted to buy the house. She learned that the woman envisioned her family gathering there. The investment would be about more than the money. She also learned that the woman came from a real estate background and had experience making savvy investments in property. Kirchenbauer ended up telling her she thought the purchase was a good idea.
  2. Check your emotions. Be aware of your reactions to clients' stories. Just because a client's experience triggers an emotion in you doesn't mean it will be the same emotion, or even one remotely similar, to the one the client felt.
  3. Put a living room in your office. Being able to sit in a more informal space puts many clients at ease, research has found.
  4. Be aware of your body language. Many planners reflexively cross their arms or cross their legs into a T, which may send an off-putting message to clients.
  5. Practice empathy. Be aware of what you are feeling about your clients. To help build empathy, ask yourself these questions: What if a friend or a family member was dealing with this? What if I were confronted with this situation? What emotions does this client situation bring up for me? What else do I need to know about this to connect?
  6. Practice being nonjudgmental. One trio of clients challenged Kirchenbauer's own ability to suspend judgment, she says. It was a man, his wife and their girlfriend, who have chosen to be in a three-way relationship and also "enjoy a substance that is not legal in my state, but in many other states." The empathy questions proved useful in helping her move through her tendency to judge. "It took a great deal of deep listening and learning about their concerns and having a lot of empathy" to understand them, she said. "This isn't a fly-by-night thing. They've been together a long time. They share two houses together."
  7. Examine and re-examine your biases. To that end, ask yourself: Do you really understand your clients' values and goals? To help do so, refer to them as people, not as objects. Not as "the husband" or "the wife," but as Joe or Susan. 

Hear your judging mind. Let go of the stories your mind may tell you automatically.

  1. Be curious. When you want or need to know more about a client's situation, don't say "Why" when starting a sentence, as in "Why do you have $50,000 in debt?" Instead try, "Tell me more about the debt" or "I'm curious to learn more about the debt."
  2. Start with yourself. "The first place we have to start being nonjudgmental is with ourselves," she says. "If we can't be gentle with ourselves, we can't be gentle with others." 

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