Good question. I called Andrea White of Financial Conversations to ask a few questions myself. Andrea is a Master Certified Coach and a dignified specialist in the art of conversation.
White explained that financial planning, like law, accounting and medicine, is a knowledge-intensive vocation. In these professions, we generally transfer expert knowledge via words, so it is easy to get tied up in the delivery. The key, she says, is to have good conversations—and the key to good conversations is a good balance between questions and answers.
My own coach, Jonathan Clark of Coriolis Consulting Group, points out that our perceptions—that is, our individual views of reality—determine how the world occurs for us. Therefore, we are exactly whoever we say we are. In effect, we are our words.
When working with clients (in fact, with everyone), we need to understand that each of us experiences the world differently. Conversations become more effective when we understand this. For example, my advisor friend told his crying client, "I am sorry." For what? He did not make her husband die. How many times have you said, "Don't worry, everything will be okay"? How do you know? Everything will be okay for whom?
I used to rerun critical conversations in my head, telling myself that I should have done this or I should have said that. Then I would get frustrated or upset because there was nothing I could do about them. What can you do, call up the client and say, "Remember that talk we had yesterday, well, I should have said..."? Clark calls this "should-ing on yourself." What good does this do? Does it change what has already been said?
On the other hand, if you said something that is untrue or that gets in the way of the relationship, you need to make it right. That's it. Going back to recreate what you might have done is wasting time and effort.
WHOSE POINT OF VIEW?
Let's look at your worldview as a practitioner. Perhaps your worldview is that of a medical doctor-assessing the current situation, applying various solutions and appropriately selecting the best choice to provide the best outcome for the client. Perhaps it is that of an educator, empowering people with knowledge and information that will allow them to select their own course of action, thus better preparing them for future decisions. Either way, you assume the caring, competent role of an expert who knows more about this financial stuff than the client does.
The client's point of view is much different. Clients are experts in their own lives. They may believe they are unique in their financial circumstances, but they still want to know absolutely that they are not alone. They know when something will upset them or become an obstacle, even if they don't know why. They want to be in control, but simultaneously may be looking to share or dump some responsibility if solutions are not working out to their expectations, or if they are going through emotional experiences and want the security blanket of a professional.
I asked White for ideas on how an advisor might work with a client who is going through emotional times, like our widow in the example at the beginning of this column. She came back with six guidelines for these types of conversations:
1. Don't pretend it didn't happen (in this case, the widow's loss of her husband). Acknowledge it and ask about it. Stop and let the person respond. Don't worry if there is dead air; the client needs time to unwind and probe into it.
2. Be cautious. Explore it (the circumstances of her husband's death) only as long as the other person wants.
3. Recognize and honor it (if you can)."I understand that... ."
4. Don't say, "I know how you feel." You don't. Remember, you may have had a similar experience, but this is another individual's experience.