Is it Okay to Cry in Front of Clients?
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It’s one of those things you’re told never to do. But here’s an example of one time that crying in front of a client led to a breakthrough I never would have made dry-eyed.
Is it okay to cry in front of your clients?
It may sound like an obvious ”no.” It’s common belief in the business world that any display of emotion or vulnerability is a sign of weakness.
But as someone who used to believe that emotional vulnerability is a huge sign of weakness, if it happens for the right reason it’s actually the opposite: a source of unbelievable strength.
When I was working on Wall Street in my 20s and early 30s and trying to be unemotional, there’s no way I would have ever shed a tear in public, let alone at work. It’s different now. Perhaps it’s the shift in work environment or because I’m a mother now (which, I believe, opens you up to all sorts of emotions you probably didn’t have before).
Crying is okay in certain situations, as long as you read what I’m about to describe.
Accidental emotional intelligence – Breakdown or breakthrough?
Years ago when I used to be an advisor, I had a young couple who expressed an interest in some financial advice as well as some term insurance, as they were expecting their first child. As we moved into the underwriting process for the insurance policies, there was a fair amount of back and forth as the woman was in her second trimester of pregnancy – cases tend to become a bit more complicated the further along you go.
I called her office to confirm something about the application and what I heard caused my heart to start pounding like a drum in my chest.
“Oh, she’s on maternity leave. The baby came early.”
What on Earth? How could this happen?
I stared at the receiver, speechless. She was in the last weeks of her second trimester. There was obviously complications leading the baby to be delivered months too early. There were serious health risks to both the baby and mother. There was a chance one or both of them could have passed away.
This news sliced through me like a dagger. I had recently had my second baby, and in all of my pregnancies my worst fear has been having a serious complication like this. My entire being felt this pain. It was as if I was the one going through the experience instead of my client – that is how deeply the emotions ran. I had an unbelievable feeling of empathy for them.
I called the husband, who was very composed, which was better than I could do because I was unable to utter more than a few words without breaking down and crying. I somehow managed to get through the conversation.
A few weeks later I heard the joyous news that both the baby and mother had recovered and were doing as well as could be expected. I rejoiced and sent them a baby gift. From that moment onwards, it was as if some wall had been broken through. Before this experience, they had been a little guarded with me. The trust wasn’t tremendously high. However I bore my soul to them through this raw demonstration of emotion, it’s was as if there was this new level of comfort with me. To this day we’re still in touch.
As my example illustrates, crying isn’t at the top of the list of ways to connect with clients, but in this experience there is a lesson about emotional intelligence:
When your heart moves you out of your own comfort zone, you just may find that you move other people’s hearts out of theirs.
As human beings we’re innately programmed to mirror the emotions of others. For example, many people can be led to tears by watching an actor experience a painful scene in a movie. By showing your emotional vulnerability, you may just find that it makes your clients feel okay with showing you theirs.
Some guidelines for crying in front of clients
It would be ridiculous to plan a crying spell, but in the event you feel one coming on, here are some suggestions:
- Don’t fight it so much that your face gets contorted. Just relax and let yourself weep gracefully.
- Blot gently; don’t rub your eyes with the tissue or they will become red and swollen, making it obvious after the fact.
- Don’t apologize or act embarrassed; how you feel about it is how other people are going to take it. If you’re okay with it, they’ll likely feel it’s okay, too.
- Don’t try to hide it but by the same token, don’t put it on display.
- Cry with minimal noise or disruption.
- Get it done, and then return quickly back to focus on work. Don’t get crying derail you from the work you need to do for the client.
- If you feel the crying spell is getting out of control, excuse yourself and go to the bathroom to cry until you can return to the office.
- If you’re at a point in life when you’re particularly prone to crying, be prepared with tissues and an escape plan.
When emotional vulnerability is not okay
Don’t get me wrong; I’m not saying that we should all throw our emotional guardrails out the window. Here are examples of times when it’s better to hold your emotions in check.
- When it’s insincere, fake or forced – the fact that this is spontaneous and sincere is what makes it okay;
- When it’s manipulative. Example: You burst into tears when a client tells you he or she is terminating their contract with you;
- When it’s one-sided or something the other party can’t connect with, agree with, or be open to it; or
- When it portrays you as the innocent victim at the hand of someone else with whom you work.
Years ago I was on a consulting assignment at a small investment firm. We were in the process of restructuring some operations and it involved raising the performance standards for a few of the employees. One of them was a college-age intern.
In the middle of a meeting about the new service standards, the intern started this waterworks festival about how she was under so much pressure with the new regime. She was crying and carrying on and on while the rest of the company sat there in silence.
I told her that she it would be a good idea to excuse herself until she calmed down, but she was too busy making a scene to listen. The company president fortunately put an end to the episode in a way that (kind of) made me feel as if he were taking her side.
It wasn’t the most professional company in the world (obviously).
In this instance, unlike in my crying episode, she wasn’t crying out of empathy for someone else, she was crying out of self-pity. It in fact caused the opposite of connection – by portraying herself as the innocent victim of change that made sense for everyone else, she created a divide between me, her colleagues and the company president. She was the poor baby and I was the perpetrator.
Lastly, it was manipulative; as you can see, she succeeded in her goal of making leadership feel bad. At some point not too long thereafter I voluntarily ceased doing business with the company.
Emotion is a powerful thing. As I’ve said in other articles, in the future it will be increasingly important for advisors to differentiate themselves from automated or digital offerings that cost less by emphasizing the human element in their practices. A display of emotional vulnerability that comes from the heart, when it happens correctly, its sincerity will bring down barriers, summon people’s spirits, and lead people to connect with you in ways that aren’t possible on logic alone. If done appropriately, instead of a weakness it is a strength.
Sara Grillo, CFA, is a top financial writer with a focus on marketing and branding for investment management, financial planning, and RIA firms. Prior to launching her own firm, she was a financial advisor and worked at Lehman Brothers. Sara graduated from Harvard with a degree in English literature and has an MBA from NYU Stern in quantitative finance.