The power and practice of empathy

The power and practice of empathy

Demonstrate positive emotions and build powerful relationships with members.

April 3, 2020

“Empathy is about standing is someone else’s shoes, feeling with his or her heart, seeing with his or her eyes.  Not only is empathy hard to outsource and automate, but it makes the world a better place.”  Daniel H. Pink

It’s a beautiful sentiment and so true­—and yet so challenging sometimes.

Navigating the world of financial services is difficult. For most members, coming to or contacting the credit union is an activity they have to do rather than one they want to do. They find themselves temporarily without a job, or having reduced hours, or worse yet, wondering how to keep themselves and their loved ones safe.  It generates anxiety and stress. And when things don’t go as planned, or something doesn’t work as promised, emotions are heightened and logic can go out the window.

On the other hand, when things are going really well, and the member expresses positive emotion around the situation, empathizing enables you to reinforce the member’s positive feelings toward you and the credit union.

Demonstrating empathy for how someone feels is a powerful way to build strong, trusting relationships.   

Empathy takes practice and awareness, and it’s not for every situation. You can break it down into three parts:

  1. Pay attention to the whole person—not just to the words people use or tone of voice, but their facial expression and body language. The best moment for empathy is when you really feel and can almost see the emotion rolling off that person. 
  2. Listen, first to understand and then to help. This isn’t about you or what you’re going to do. It’s about validating how that person is feeling—demonstrating that you care. In many cases, if you can’t minimize or remove the emotion from the situation it can be very challenging to move the conversation ahead. 
  3. Reflect back the emotion you’re sensing by communicating your response in that tone without parroting the person. For clarity, emphasize the emotion in your statement.

Consider these examples:

  • “Not having a steady income right now is scary.”
  • “You’re relieved to know we have some solutions to help right now,”
  • “It’s overwhelming to balance the demands of work and home.”
  •  “Having a chance to help others right now is rewarding.” 

Sometimes you don’t even need to get that fancy if the situation is clear—just be yourself.

Keep the following tips in mind when you’re talking with members and concentrating on being empathetic:

  • Avoid using the phrases “I understand” or “I know how that feels.”  The current situation with the pandemic makes it seem that we should all feel and be experiencing the same things – but we aren’t.  Using “I” takes the emphasis off the member and puts it on you. Many times this only escalates the situation and the member may say, “No, you don’t.”
  • Stop after you empathize to give the member a chance to respond. This tells you if you got it right and allows the member to calm down. If you didn’t hit the mark, the member has a chance to clarify their feelings for you and give you insights into what is most troubling them.

Remember, infusing empathy into your conversations with members is an important way to create exceptional member experiences. When you build stronger bonds with members, they’re more likely to see you as their trusted financial partner and remain loyal to your credit union.

CARLA SCHRINNER is implementation manager and senior master trainer for CUNA’s Creating Member LoyaltyTM (CML) program. Contact her at