I once received a phone call from a local advisor I’ll call Mick, who had spoken to a friend of mine and heard I might be interested in a loan against my mortgage. Using this friend as a reference, Mick made a cold call to me, beginning his pitch with the following exchange:

“This is Mick G. from XYZ Financial. I understand you’re a friend of Tony?”

“Yes,” I answered. “He’s a good golf buddy of mine. Excuse me, I don’t know if we have ever met.”

“You belong to the golf club, don’t you?”

“Yeah, I sure do.”

“I belong there too. How’s the game?” he asked.

“Oh, you know, up and down,” I answered.

“You wrote a book, didn’t you?” Mick asked.

“Yeah, I’ve written a few books.”

“Yeah, yeah right,” Mick replied, trying to keep himself from having to go down any dialogue path other than the one he intended for this call. “So, regarding this loan Tony told you about, let me ask you, how much do you have in equities?”

Almost too stunned to answer, I began to mentally assemble all that had been communicated in Mick’s short, disastrous pitch:

• He had no interest in me personally.

• He was cutting to the chase and wanted to know if it was worth his while to talk to me.

• He did deals and didn’t bother with any of the warm, fuzzy stuff that might slow them down.

Mick is a stark example of those individuals, who, by their manner and conversation pattern, give the impression that they do this business purely out of personal interest as opposed to interest in people. He is a dinosaur that was trained in sales first and an all-costs, boiler-room approach. Even the cadence of his so-called small talk was offensive.

I’ve met very few people in the financial industry who were as blatant as Mick in showing off their self-interest, but he isn’t the only one. I would encourage any advisor to take a close and scrutinizing look at the structure of their conversations, weighing the emotional signals they may be sending unwittingly to prospects and clients.

I understand that most of you would not take an abbreviated and desultory jump from talk of golf games to account balance questions (which Mick did in nanoseconds). But even if you’re more subtle, your conversation pattern will give you away in the end. I believe that clients use their emotional radar and can read the imperatives driving your conversation.

Curiosity’s Natural Order
Contemplate for a moment the natural order of conversation.

1. We talk to someone about people and things we have in common.

2. We then move into a discovery phase, asking about their backgrounds.

3. Then we make a short survey of their present circumstances.

4. Finally, we talk about their interests and hopes.

Contrast that sort of conversation, one that occurs naturally, with the pattern we hear among those in the financial services industry.

1. We engage in superfluous small talk.

2. We start getting the numbers.

3. We point out any problems.

4. We talk about strategies and solutions.

Are you surprised to hear that this causes an emotional disconnect with the client or prospect? Successful conversations follow the organic path of dialogue: You learn some things you don’t know about the individual, find out what is important to them, survey their experiences and opinions, and offer suggestions that are in sync with what you have just heard. For this sort of dialogue to be authentic, it must be fueled by 100 octane curiosity.

Curiosity’s Chemical Reaction
Richard Taflinger, a communications professor at Washington State University, writes in a study, “All creatures capable of more than a mere mechanical response to stimulus are curious. That is, they explore their world rather than just respond to it.” He proposes that a person’s curiosity stems from the biological drives of preservation, reproduction and greed. “The greatest advantage of curiosity,” he continues, “is the increase in neurological connections it makes possible. Investigating the unusual creates new pathways in the brain. The more pathways, the more possible responses to stimuli, the more possible responses, the greater likelihood of a proper response to another novel situation. Curiosity strengthens these learned responses.”

From this we can conclude that curiosity triggers a number of beneficial reactions in the brain, opening neural pathways toward wisdom and, just as important, triggering a sense of empathy between inquirer and respondent.

By following the natural order of conversation, we experience curiosity’s chemical reaction, triggered in the brain as clients sense that we understand their story and empathize with it. An oft-cited study by the American Medical Association found that there were substantially fewer lawsuits by doctors who took the time to display empathy for their clients. You might be asking, “Who has time to display empathy with everything else I need to cover in these meetings?” But consider how long it took these liability-insulated physicians to display empathy. On average, it was just 90 seconds.

Living close to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., I’ve had the chance to talk to physicians and surgeons about what empathy means to their patients. I’ve seen that empathy displayed toward patients getting treatments and surgeries (and their family members). Again, the doctors showed curiosity and made personal inquiries. I’ve also seen the exceptions, when attending physicians are abrupt and coldly scientific in their approach—and then a sudden ice and discomfort comes over the person being attended to.

If it takes only 90 seconds to demonstrate empathy, we can all afford to slow down our approach and make sure we’re sending the right signals with our tone and pace and the focus of our questions.

I once sat in a study group with physicians who discussed the increasing demands on their time and schedule and how these demands had suffocated their interactions with patients, especially those troubled or confused. They talked about how their inner clock was always ticking and how they often found themselves being overly succinct because of that time pressure—and they felt bad about it in retrospect.

There is a lesson in that for all of us. Are we scheduling ourselves too tightly? Is it causing our inner clock to rush us? These subtleties all have an impact, for better or worse, in our attempts to establish empathy and rapport.

We all have emotional radar, and it sends clear signals when people we’re doing business with are authentically interested in people. And the beauty of it is, it doesn’t take long to show it.  

Mitch Anthony is the creator of Life-Centered Planning, the author of 18 books for advisors and their clients, and the co-founder of ROLadvisor.com and LifeCenteredPlanners.com.