Diversity Insight: Empathy Fuels Connections With a Wide Variety of Members

happy female executives working together
By Dusti Young , Andy Manthei

7 minutes

To effectively assist more of your members, listen and then listen some more before you ever talk about solutions.

In recent times, many credit unions have wondered if they are truly serving the people they were originally created to serve—local communities, people with such common bonds as an employer or community and the underserved.

Doing so well may depend a great deal on the ability to serve people you don’t serve now. And serving people that you don’t serve now may require you to get better at first recognizing diverse needs so then you can address them.

Diversity, at the heart of it, comes down to our unique personal journeys. Diversity comes from not only outward physical differences but from varied life experiences. My journey is not the same as yours and so if I think I know what you have been through and experienced, we can miss the opportunity for me to listen and get to the heart of how we can work together.

Why does this matter? How can true empathy connect you and the credit union to the person in front of you seeking a loan—one you know you can’t make a loan to based on the data you have?

Finances are emotional for the person involved and they are emotional for those of us helping them. In our work in the financial counseling space, we at GreenPath Financial Wellness have learned that most of us are unconsciously passing judgment on others based on our own beliefs, attitudes and upbringing about money. 

What was our solution to doing better? We paid attention to what we were doing that wasn’t helpful and are learning how to show up with empathy.

We Noticed That We Wanted To Put A Positive Spin On The Situation. 

We want someone to feel better and as soon as they share their story, we jump in to let them know everything is going to be OK. Maybe someone told you they are terrible with money and you responded, “Oh no, you’re not terrible with money.” With that well-intentioned response, you minimize how they feel about their spending habits. What if you said, “Would you help me understand why you think you are terrible with money?” This open-ended question invites them to tell you more and allows you to truly hear them.

We Realized We Have A Tendency To Provide Advice.

Naturally, we want to make things better. When someone shares their financial woes—say, not being able to make their car payment, we jump in with a solution. We assume we know how they can make everything better. By offering up advice right away, we are minimizing their story. We are not able to focus on someone’s needs when we are constructing the solution in our minds.

We Sympathize, Rather Than Empathize.

Have you ever said, “I’m sorry that happened to you” or “I am so sorry”? You are not alone. We tend to offer an apology when something has gone wrong for someone. We do this a lot when it comes to money. Someone comes in after they have been denied a loan because of bad credit or a lack of credit, or another reason altogether and we say, “I’m sorry.” This simple well-intentioned act might be an empathy blocker.

When we express sympathy, we are feeling sorry for someone. Ask yourself, why do you feel sorry for the person? Why weren’t they approved for the loan? Did the member learn that they shouldn’t trust a financial institution? Did they overextend themselves? How might you take a step back to see the world through your member’s eyes?

We Pass Judgment On Ourselves And On Those We Serve.

We pass judgment. It is that simple. Our minds are automatically categorizing the information that is coming in and, as a result, we are judging the person based on the message. Take this example: Someone is consistently overdrafting their account and you know they just came back from vacation. You think they should simply be able to cut back on their spending. I mean, why would you go on vacation when you are overdrafting your account? 

We know this is not empathy, however, we are not always aware that we are automatically passing judgment. This can cloud our response and it can take practice to step back and truly try to imagine the world through their eyes. We do not know what they know; we have not had the same life experiences, thoughts or upbringing. Maybe their entire family went on vacation, or maybe their parents paid for their vacation. Who are we to judge?

The bottom line is that empathy takes practice. It takes time to recognize that we are not always responding with empathy even when we think we are. It takes time to understand that even though there may be similarities in someone’s life journey, we have not lived it through their eyes. We are hardwired to try to connect parts of our experience with theirs, but this actually does the opposite and disconnects. People can live in the same household with the same parents and have two entirely different experiences. We capture pieces throughout our lives that are meaningful and have an impact, and they are different for each of us. That is diversity.

Here are four steps to take to listen better so you can respond with empathy:

  1. Pause. If you do not know what to say, that is OK. Take a second to let it sink in for you and for them.
  2. See them. Really see someone for who they are. How might you see the world through their eyes? How could you connect with them? Imagine what the world is like for them. How would you feel if you were going through a divorce or if you had just lost your job? How might that be different if you are a working mother of four or a single entrepreneur? Take time to really see the person you are talking to.  
  3. Listen. Someone just chose to share something really personal with you. Rather than worrying about how to respond, take a second and simply listen. Your job is not to paint a rosy picture or solve all of their problems, you simply need to be present.  
  4. Recap. Recapping is stating what someone just said as a summary and a great way to make sure you understand what someone is saying. This is also a great way to acknowledge how someone feels. Maybe the situation sucks. It is OK to acknowledge that they feel terrible.

What’s the Win?

Brené Brown sums up the difference between empathy and sympathy very succinctly in the RSA Short: Brené Brown on Empathy when she explains, “Empathy fuels connection. Sympathy drives disconnection.” When you take the time to understand a member’s perspective and then communicate that understanding, you are prioritizing the connection with your members. That connection fuels trust and can help facilitate a conversation of how you might work with that member to guide them to a place of being loan ready.  

The truth is, we do not know what emotions people are bringing to their money. We don’t know if they grew up thinking overdrafting is normal, or if spending is filling an emotional need. Maybe they are hiding spending from a loved one, or they never learned how to manage a checking account. Maybe they distrusted “banks,” or banks or credit unions weren’t in their area because they lived in an area a bank or credit union wouldn’t do business in. Maybe they never understood how to set financial goals because their only true goal was survival and putting food on the table.

Money is complex and emotional, and empathy is the solution. By forging a human connection through true listening, you are opening a door to a relationship that is advantageous to the member, to the credit union and to yourself, because they will trust you. Regardless of the loan decision on a given day, they will recognize you tried to understand what brought them into your office, and it will be an experience they won’t forget, because in most situations they aren’t treated the same way. *Note: If you think this only works in professional spaces, you might be surprised to learn how these principles help in all relationships!

Thinking back, what are some instances where you perhaps did not display true empathy to members? What are some ways you can prioritize empathy?

Dusti Young has a passion and energy for spreading financial wellness. Through her role at GreenPath, Farmington Hills, Michigan, she connects people to financial wellness by working with GreenPath’s partners. Andy Manthei has a rich canvas of member experience to draw on from his time as a branch manager and loan officer for a credit union to more than 10 years at GreenPath in roles of financial counseling and working directly with partners to create financial wellness programs of impact.

Compass Subscription