Originally posted in Financial Advisor (fa-mag.com) on November 1, 2019

The self-centered self-delusion.

Your clients live in their own world. You live in yours. Is it possible to tune into clients well enough in conversation to break out of the gravitational pull of your planet and make a permanent landing on theirs? Only if you have a good understanding of the nature of the gravitational pull of your own planet and have the empathetic willpower to launch through the atmosphere that keeps you hinged to your own concerns.

I’m talking about developing superior listening skills. The advisor who demonstrates the best skill sets of hearing and comprehending wins the client’s heart, soul and business.

I remember years ago reading about a study conducted on the communications skills of investment advisors. The findings, if nothing else, confirmed how easy it is to overestimate one’s own empathy. What the researchers found, in a nutshell, was this:

Seventy-one percent of respondents said they believed that their clients were content with their communication skills, yet 57% of the clients stated that their representative was falling short of their expectations in communication. Think of the disparity this way: Almost three of four advisors think they are just fine, and almost three out of five clients disagree.

If your relationship is to progress, your client must be much more impressed with your listening skills than they are with your presentation skills. It’s possible to be the greatest presenter in the room and yet still be the worst communicator. Don’t we all know someone who fits this description? Isn’t this person sometimes you or me?

A study on effective communication from the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh found that there are four major factors (within ourselves) interfering with effective listening, especially in any sales and marketing setting. These are the gravitational forces and instincts that keep us trying to pull people toward our planet instead of making a successful landing on theirs. For the sake of recall, I have formed the following acronym (SEED) to identify the four factors that keep us from really tuning in. Think of them as “the seeds of client discontent.”

S – Self-Focus: We are simply so concerned with our own agenda and pushing that agenda that we can’t tune in to the speaker.

E – Egocentricity: We simply like to hear the sound of our own voice, and our favorite topics are what we have done, what we think and how successful we are. Egocentricity also places more emphasis on being witty, clever and smart than actually hearing the other party.

E – Experiential Superiority: When a client is talking, we start thinking “I’ve already heard this story before” (or something very close to it) and find it difficult to resist the impulse to jump in and reveal that we “already know where this is going” or to offer input on the assumed objective of what they are saying.

D – Defensiveness: If someone doesn’t agree with our advice or ideas, the first impulse is to become emotionally agitated and defend our view and opinion. This builds a wall between us and hobbles our ability to listen.

“He just doesn’t listen!” said one woman to me as she explained why she had just changed 401(k) vendors for her company. “I would look this guy in the eye and tell him what I wanted and needed, and he would just continue to push his own agenda. Obviously, this was not about us for him; so we switched. And technically, he probably has a slightly better product. But I can’t deal with the lack of understanding anymore.”

It would hardly be possible to quantify how much money is lost and left on the table by people with poor listening skills, but be sure it would be in the billions. As individuals, we must ask ourselves how much a lack of listening might be costing our business. Is it possible that some of our clients—ones we assume are satisfied with the way we communicate—would say they are not so satisfied? The safest premise we can operate from is this: “I can always do a better job of listening.” It’s better to take that attitude, because it will safeguard us from smugness, arrogance and the sort of hubris that causes important relationships to fail.

Those who possess excellent inquiry skills are usually curious and genuinely interested in others by nature. Yet they have also learned that these skills must be purposefully developed with practice and good habits.

The Empathy Report Card

If your clients were allowed to fill out a listening skills report on you, how well do you think you would score? Consider designing a scorecard like the one below.

The reality is that clients and prospects won’t give you this sort of report card—they will just go elsewhere! Therefore, we must simply develop a mindfulness and awareness about superior listening skills. If you want to be pulled into the same orbit as your clients, you’ll need to pay closer attention when they talk and to how “tuned in” your responses are to the actual content of what they are saying. If you are expecting clients to follow your lead simply because of your flash and brilliance, then ask yourself how far you would follow a shooting star?

The following words by Søren Kierkegaard may be some of the most incisive and penetrating thoughts ever penned on the posture your ego must assume if you are to truly help people make progress:

“If one is truly to succeed in leading a person to a specific place, one must first and foremost take care to find him where he is and begin there.

“This is the secret in the entire art of helping.

“Anyone who cannot do this is himself under a delusion if he thinks he is able to help someone else. In order to truly help someone else, I must understand more than he—but certainly first and foremost understand what he understands.

“If I do not do that, then my greater understanding does not help him at all. If I nevertheless want to assert my greater understanding, then it is because I am vain or proud, then basically instead of benefiting him I really want to be admired by him.

“But all true helping begins with a humbling.

“The helper must first humble himself under the person he wants to help and thereby understand that to help is not to dominate but to serve, that to help is not to be the most dominating but the most patient, that to help is a willingness for the time being to put up with being in the wrong and not understanding what the other understands.”

Open ears can help to train a restless tongue. A humbleness of heart and a true desire to understand the person we seek to help is the posture required to open our ears to their full capacity. Our relational capacity will never exceed our listening capacity. This is the inviolable law of human connectivity … and this is how to fight the gravitational forces that make us want to pull everyone’s attention back to ourselves.

Mitch Anthony is the creator of Life-Centered Planning, the author of 12 books for advisors, and the co-founder of ROLadvisor.com and LifeCenteredPlanners.com.