Developing Empathy Skills to Assist Members

purple head and pink head with swirly lines between them
Alison Barksdale Photo
AVP/Marketing/Marketing Director
CU Members Mortgage

5 minutes

Coach your lending staff to take these key steps.

While empathy is the cornerstone of the credit union mantra, “people helping people,” I would argue it has never been more necessary than today. Regardless of how you feel about COVID-19, vaccines, masks or the politicizing of a public health crisis, the reality is that either you or someone close to you has been directly affected. Add to that the many challenging and often stressful interactions taking place at your credit union and it is not surprising that everyone has a heightened sense of tension boiling.

For example, financing a home is often the most challenging financial decision of a member’s life, and it’s typically the biggest financial purchase they make. It’s not done often enough for most members to consider themselves accustomed to the process. Plus, it’s very time-consuming, requires attention to detail, and as the member waits for approval, they can feel very vulnerable as their life is on hold, waiting to see what direction they are taking next.

Also, keep in mind, while we’d love to look at only the excitement of buying a new home, financing can often be needed due to such difficult situations as divorce, downsizing due to loss or refinancing due to financial strain. Put that all together, and you may be sitting with a member that is at the end of their rope and that’s not even considering you may need to communicate a denial of their loan. This tense stressful world is in dire need of a little TLC.

The Role of Training

These layers of stress have made leaders realize that sensitivity training is imperative to embrace the members we serve and better connect with them. If you have already armed your team with training on how to be more understanding and empathetic, kudos to you for being one step further along. For those who have it scheduled or who’ve been too busy serving to sit down and decipher the need yet, here is help for the meantime. Share these five steps with your team to help them approach and dissolve tense conversations with care and empathy.

  1. Listen. It’s not just about letting members vent, although that is important, it’s about hearing their need and asking them to share more. Help members paint the picture of what they’re going through. Learn more about the situation by asking what happened next, how is that going, why do you think that happened. By asking questions, you show you care about their situation and want to help them. It builds trust and relationship along the way too.
  2. Validate emotion. As you hear a member’s story, use validating responses such as “I understand” and “I hear you.” You can also use confirmations such as “That must have been hard” or “How does that make you feel?” to prompt details. People often throw in personal stories of how they have experienced the same thing, however, you must be careful with this approach as it slowly turns the conversation away from them and to you. True empathy stays focused on them and allows them to feel supported. Don’t take the situation away from them unless they specifically ask if you have experienced anything similar.
  3. Accept their perspective. Accepting their perspective doesn’t mean you necessarily agree with them. It’s about validating their feelings about the situation. They can be completely wrong and still have a right to feel the way they do. If they are in complete disagreement with what your policy or experience is, you still want to accept their perspective.
  4. Restate the problem. Once they have shared the situation and you’ve validated the way they feel and absorbed their perspective, restate the problem at hand. This will bring the conversation full circle and give them a chance to focus on moving forward. More times than not, people just need to feel heard and know that someone understands their feelings. Once that is out of the way, you can step toward a resolution, but the situation needs restating to ensure that you both know what the focus is that brought on the conversation in the first place.
  5. Propose a solution and next step. Finally, you can move toward a resolution. It can’t be blatant or abrupt though. You’ve just deflated a tense person to begin with. You want to guide them to a solution. Let questions steer their thinking or possibly get them to propose ideas. Either way, by having them offer suggestions, they’ve already agreed to finding a solution.

Importantly though, many situations in need of empathy do not require a solution. Maybe they only need to be heard, validated and accepted, but those steps are an extension of understanding in and of themselves. These first steps are really the core of empathy to begin with and require little else. They will build trust and relationships on their own. The solution is only needed when you have a problem that was specifically brought to light. If a member, or an employee for that matter, shares a hard situation they are going through, then they likely don’t want you to fix it. They often only want to feel accepted and not alone.

Stress has become all too common in today’s world. We are uncertain of what’s ahead, and more often than not, the person you are speaking with is carrying some heavy burdens. Add the heightened anxiety of being home for the last 18 months, and it’s the perfect mix of agitation. These steps can help dissolve difficult situations and calmly help members through every transaction ahead.

Alison Barksdale is AVP/marketing for CUESolutions Bronze provider CU Members Mortgage, a nationwide mortgage solutions provider making homeownership dreams happen for thousands of credit union members since 1982. Visit the company’s website to learn more about its custom home loan solutions for your credit union.

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