Years ago, a veteran advisor told me to observe a young, exuberant rookie and try to figure out if he would “get” business from a prospect. I admitted that I didn’t know if he would win the person over or not. The veteran then said, “I can assure you that he will not get the business. If you carefully watch his conversation, you will observe that he has not yet figured out who matters most in this conversation. He thinks it’s about him and his expertise. Always remember this one important fact: Every person you meet is wearing a sign around his or her neck that very few people know how to read. The sign has only four words on it, but 95% of those competing for the business don’t have a clue as to what it says. The four words are, “Help me feel important.”

In a competitive society where self-promotion is as common as the air we breathe, we will have little distracting us when making this empathetic connection—once we recognize this sign on those we meet. These people are typically in corporate cultures that do little to affirm how important they are. Many carry doubts and insecurities about themselves. Anything you do to help people feel more significant will be welcome. The best thing you can do is to make a sincere inquiry.

It would be difficult to quantify how much money each of us lose because of poor listening skills, but I’m quite sure it is substantial. Is it possible that some of your clients, whom you assume are satisfied with the way you communicate, would say they aren’t? The safest premise we can operate from is: “I can always do a better job.” And the best way to do that is to show genuine curiosity. If we are truly curious about the emotional states of the people we want to work with, it safeguards us from smugness, arrogance and the sort of hubris that causes important clients to flee.

Curious people will possess excellent inquiry skills and are genuinely interested in other people. But these skills must be purposefully developed if they are to help us develop good listening habits.

The Empathy Report Card
If your most important client contacts could grade you on the following listening skills report, how well would you score?

We are all guilty at times of being poor listeners. Some of us, however, are more susceptible than others. One irony of this profession is that the field naturally attracts many enterprising and motivated individuals who, by nature of personality, have short attention spans and are given to impatience—yet their success hinges on their ability to tune in to others.

But the fact that we are not all great listeners or observers by nature does not mean we can’t improve. If we approach these skills as a discipline and develop good habits, eventually we’ll conquer our impulses. We can develop patterns and feel at home when engaging in conversation. We’ll also reap greater satisfaction and fulfillment as we develop more impactful relationships with clients.

Here are some of the mistakes that individuals with underdeveloped empathy skills make during conversations:

• They jump too early into a presentation.
• They grandstand with witty comments, stories and opinions at the expense of the other person’s stories and opinions.
• They focus more on facts than on feelings, instead of balancing both.
• They obsess over details, missing the point or the big picture of what someone is trying to say.
• They are not in control of nervous or uptight body language signals.
• They focus on their own responses rather than on the person speaking.

Who doesn’t occasionally give in to self-indulgence or self-interest? Tight schedules, demanding goals and trying clients can all distract us from our best listening game. Ultimately, it is our discipline in these little matters that defines our destiny.

But truly curious people become completely absorbed in other people’s stories. It’s not a game. It’s not a ploy. They are not asking questions to set up prerecorded monologues. They are asking because they have a real appetite to understand their clients and how they might best be able to help them.

It’s Not What You Tell But What You Hear
It’s not enough to have a shoe to sell. You must have an accurate measurement of a client’s foot, understand where they’re walking. In other words, you have to know the context of the advice you want to give them. You must be able to say, “You have a need, and I may have an answer to that need.”

There is much discovery work to be accomplished to ensure someone will be happy with what you are offering them. This is why I focus on the power of curiosity, which will help you understand your clients’ motives, how closely you can link their needs with your service, and how long and strong this relationship will become.

Every client has a unique story and path. Are they similar to other stories you’ve heard? Yes, but each one is still singular. Only the truly curious exert the energy to discover exactly what those special aspects are, and in the process that client feels affirmed. They feel important.

Mitch Anthony is the creator of Life-Centered Planning, the author of 12 books for advisors, and the co-founder of and LifeCentered