What If There’s No Palm Tree?

November 2nd newsletter

She’s widowed. She just had a hip replaced. She’s lived in the same home for 40 years.

She’s also a referral. So you arrange to come to her home to present some insurance options and find a kindly but frail, white-haired grandma who’s never paid a bill in her life because her recently deceased husband always took care of those matters. You’re 30-something, newly married, no kids, focused on building your career. How are you going to relate to someone so different from you?  

Maybe you can look for something you have in common. There’s a palm tree figurine on a shelf. You like palm trees, so you ask where she got it. Mexico, she says. You went to Mexico on your honeymoon, you say. Turns out you both love to travel. It seems you’ve found your first bit of common ground.

That’s a great strategy. But what if there’s no palm tree to bond over?

If you back up, you would find that you already shared a lot with her before you even walked in the door. All humans have certain basic needs: food, water and shelter at the top of the list. But there are other intangible needs, too: a desire to feel safe, to feel accepted, to be respected, and to be understood.

This is where empathy comes into play. Project yourself into her situation. How would you feel if you’d just lost a longtime spouse, had surgery, and had to learn how to handle your finances for the first time in your old age? Probably scared, lonely and overwhelmed. How would you want someone to communicate with you in that situation? Likely with kindness, patience and reassurance.

Being empathetic to a person means you treat them as a peer instead of talking down to them or offering platitudes. Here are some examples that illustrate the difference between empathetic and non-empathetic language in the scenario with the widow:

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The phrases on the left tell her you can imagine what it’s like to be in her place and you care. Those on the right tell her you want to wrap it up and move on. Which do you think is likely to make her want to continue working with you?

As an agent, you need to be prepared to deal with adults of all ages, socioeconomic backgrounds, religions, ethnic identities, sexual orientations, etc. No one is expecting a Jerry Maguire you-complete-me moment. But if you make a concerted effort to approach each interaction with empathy, you will likely establish stronger and longer-lasting relationships with your clients.

This is the final installment of three blog posts about communications skills. Click on these links to read more about active listening and explaining effectively.

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