For financial professionals, having empathy for clients is not as simple as practicing what you preach. It’s about following the advice of Sun Tzu. (Photo: Shutterstock)

It’s a good thing Sun Tzu never invaded Scotland. He would have made a great golfer. But that’s not important right now. What’s important is one of the strategies Sun Tzu has been credited with memorializing in the book The Art of War:

“To know your Enemy, you must become your Enemy.”

Before you get going too far down the road on some military metaphor, stop. This isn’t about war or The Art of War.

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It’s about the most opposite you can get. It’s about friendship. The objective may be different, but the strategy is the same. For example, to best become your enemy requires you to fully empathize with him.

In this matter, Sun Tzu is often interpreted as saying one must walk in the enemy’s shoes. In doing so, one knows the feelings, the motivations, and the intents of the opponent.

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The mysterious and often intimidating unknown represented by any foe instantly dissolves when you become that rival. Indeed, Sun Tzu says, “If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles.”

Being the kind of friend people admire, ironically, requires the same empathy that wins battles. We need to understand everything about them in order to serve their best interests.

That means we must empathize with them. What’s the optimal method for achieving this? Picture yourself in your client’s shoes.

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If you’re talking to a retirement saver, think about how you save for retirement. You’d be surprised how your own concerns can align with retirement savers and plan sponsors (see “Retirement Pros Reveal Their Own Best Interests When It Comes to Their Retirement Plans,”, January 9, 2018).

Sounds easy, right? Alas, a 2013 study conducted by the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences suggests it isn’t, and even more for highly successful financial professionals.

This research concluded the more comfortable your position, the more difficult it is to empathize. (You might get a kick out of how they proved this. Researchers gave half their subjects a picture of maggots and put slime on their hands, while the other half saw a photo of a puppy and felt soft fur.)

Why is empathy so difficult for the advisers people have the greatest attraction to? People tend to gravitate towards people who they want to emulate. They’re not looking for empathy, they’re looking for a role model. And those role models tend to be quite successful; hence, quite comfortable. In other words, these “role models” are less likely to find their way to empathize.

It therefore becomes a trade-off: Do you want to attract people by becoming a role model, or do you want to create solid relationships by showing empathy? Sylvia Morelli, a Postdoctoral Fellow at Stanford Social Neuroscience Lab at Stanford University, says, “Behavioral research has demonstrated that feeling understood by others enhances social closeness and intimacy, as well as subjective well-being.”

When it comes to empathy, we can listen to Sun Tzu and “become your enemy” or, if we prefer a less martial alternative, those eternal words of Ty Webb: “I’m going to give you a little advice. There’s a force in the universe that makes things happen. And all you have to do is get in touch with it, stop thinking, let things happen, and be the ball.”

For those who don’t remember, Ty Webb was Chevy Chase’s character in Caddyshack.

And that’s why Sun Tzu would have been a champion at golf.