Empathic Listening and Building Trust
The Greek witch-goddess Circe gave her son Telegonus a poisoned spear to protect him on his journey to find his father Odysseus. When Telegonus finally found Odysseus he inadvertently killed his father with the magic weapon. This is similar to some of the consequences we may inadvertently incur when we try to administer well-meaning advice to someone who is coming to us for help or guidance.
I recently had this experience with a new client who came to us to discuss the challenges she faced with her finances. She was recently widowed and under an enormous amount of stress concerning her investments because her husband had handled all the family’s money. When she entered the conference room she appeared very nervous. We tried to set her at ease by playing soft music as we usually do when meeting with all our clients. We curiously watched her open her carton of statements and documents. Many of her documents were out of order and looked as if they had been filed haphazardly inside a wastepaper basket! Even before she spoke, her eyes reflected a plethora of misfit investment information, peppered with the sad assurances that her husband had instilled in her before he had suddenly passed away.
I recognized her fears at once. They were the same predators that chased numerous widows and divorced men and women suffering from the loneliness and isolation of having to make decisions without a significant other. Before I started to speak, I suddenly became aware of the need to be silent and listen to her story. I realized this meeting wasn’t about me at all. She was frightened and concerned. The darting movement of her eyes across the statements she handed me told the story. I sensed that what she needed most at this present time was for someone to listen to what her “feelings” were saying and not what was contained on the statements. Also, it was obvious to me that the answers she was seeking were not to be discovered in financial planning advice but rather in having an opportunity to face her fears and learn to trust someone else enough to help her. The questions she asked could only be answered in the quiet gaze of our eyes and the opening of our hearts as we listened, attentively. Helping her realize that she was in a safe place and that the people with her wanted to help were our first and foremost concerns.
As the meeting progressed, Allie and I listened carefully. As her words poured out I thought about the most important relationships in my own life and the trust that developed from them. Those I appreciated most were the ones where people listened to me. Recall for a moment the relationships in your own life. They may have been with a loving friend or parent. I think you would agree that the most important aspect of that relationship was feeling acknowledged, accepted and respected. Conversely, those relationships which were mired in doubt, where the presence of respect and acceptance was non-existent, were difficult.
During the meeting, we learned that Sharon’s marriage had not been a good one. Her husband did not respect her opinions and made her feel inadequate when discussing their finances. He paid all the bills and maintained secret accounts which she knew nothing about. They had little in common with each other outside of the children.
It occurred to me that in order for us to build a foundation of trust it would be necessary to actively become engaged in deep empathic listening and understand life from her perspective. In her wonderful book Conversational Intelligence author Judith Glaser states, “By learning to see the world from another’s perspective, we can attain the highest level of trust.”
There are three rules that will assist us in building a foundation of trust:
1. Take the time to listen empathically.
2. Avoid listening with the intent to reply.
3. People don’t want solutions they want to be heard.
4. View life through another’s perspective.
After several meetings, Sharon began to feel more secure about her financial future. After building a relationship of trust with her she felt more empowered to drop her fears surrounding money. And similar to Circe sometimes actions which we believe to be well-meaning and helpful for another can actually be a hindrance for creating a foundation of trust.
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