At the heart of successful client relationships is your ability to understand clients on a meaningful level. This means probing beyond their finances to reach their most profound values, dreams and fears. In these volatile economic and political times, knowing your clients this deeply, in a way that puts them at ease and builds trust, is not just useful, it's vital to good wealth management.

Here's a tip: Start by listening - carefully. One of the top financial advisors I've coached is also an advocate of truly knowing his clients, rather than just knowing about them.

"I feel I have to learn what clients and prospects are really passionate about so that I can build a plan around what really matters to them," he says. "You can't spend half the time talking about how great you are and the other half talking about how great your firm is. You have to ask the right questions and listen to hear what motivates them to do what they do."

Translation: Cast your own ego aside, and get ready to try what I call deep listening. Listen from the heart as well as the head. Yes, it sounds New Agey. On the other hand, you can only meet your clients' needs - spoken or unspoken - if you understand the world from their perspective.


Three steps to deep listening

Step 1: Free your mind. We may think of tens of thousands of thoughts a day, prompted by internal and external stimuli of all sorts - from fleeting emotions to the color of the carpeting. You must prepare to push some of those thoughts aside. Then take a minute to get centered, and say to yourself, "I am going to have a great conversation with my client and we will both have a great experience." It may sound corny but, by simply stating your intention, you will greatly increase your chances of success.

The final preparation step is to go into each conversation with no expectations, no desired outcomes and no judgments. You may have an agenda and interview guide, but the fact is you don't know exactly where the conversation will turn - and you shouldn't. Your goal is to create an open space in which your clients can reveal themselves deeply. You are there to hear them say whatever they want and need to.

Step 2: Listen on three levels. When any client meeting or conversation is about to begin, you must place your attention on three levels simultaneously (see "The Three Levels of Listening" chart, below). This isn't as complex as it might sound. The levels are simply yourself, the context and the other person.

Level 1: Yourself. If you aren't capable of listening to yourself deeply, you won't be able to listen to your client or anyone else deeply. To size up how well you listen to yourself, ask yourself:

* Are you maintaining the intent, openness and nonjudgmental attitude necessary to have a great conversation?

* Are you fully present and paying as much attention as possible?

* Are your own thoughts intruding on your ability to listen deeply?

* Are you feeling as aligned as possible with the other person and seeing his or her point of view?

It's virtually impossible to stop all irrelevant, intrusive and judgmental thoughts, of course, so don't beat yourself up when they occur. What you can do, however, is acknowledge that it's happening, then try to let go.

Level 2: The context. You must be aware of the context of the entire conversation, including your surroundings and your previous history with the other person. Prospects, new clients and long-term clients all present very different contexts. A lighthearted joke, a sports reference, a weather comment or an inquiry about a family member may be perfectly appropriate in some contexts, off-putting in others.

Level 3: The other person. Begin by listening to the basic information the person offers. It's important that you listen well without getting too caught up in the information itself. Instead, listen to what's underneath this information - thoughts and feelings, as well as values and needs.

You may ask, for example, a question author and advisor coach Bill Bachrach has used to clarify a client's values: "What's important about money to you?" Very few people have thought much about this, and your client's first answer will probably be superficial - something like, "I can have the house and car I want, send my kids to great schools, and go on dream vacations."

If you then ask why those things are important, you may get a response like, "I care about the future of my family, I want my kids to grow up and become solid citizens, and I want them to have a good start." If you inquire further, you may find that your client feels that he belongs to a generation, a religion or a broader context that is valuable to him, and that for religious, spiritual or other reasons, he wants to leave the world a better place. If you can discover clients' deepest values and needs, you can help them construct a wealth management plan to match - enriching their lives in ways that go beyond money.

Step 3: Build a real-time toolkit. Deep listening is a multilevel task. Here are some practical approaches and strategies you can rely on and turn to in a pinch in almost any conversation:

* A variety of follow-up questions. If you aren't satisfied with superficial answers to important questions, be prepared with a set of questions such as: "Well, why is that important to you?" or, "Is there more?" or, "Is there anything else?" You can also phrase it as a statement: "There may be something more here" or, "My guess is there is probably another level to this." Very often, all a client needs is a gentle prompt.

* A willingness to speak the unspoken truth - sensitively. Suppose you ask your client a question about his or her values and the client has no response. You can then say, "Maybe you've never thought about this before" or, "We can think about this together if you like." Or you may notice that the other person is saying something that is inconsistent with something said earlier. You can point this out, but be tactful.

* The courage to reveal things about yourself and your own values. It can be good to reveal some information about yourself to show you're not just a question-asking robot. This strategy is central to the approach of the advisor I coached.

"I take chapters from my own history that relate to the topic the person is talking about and share it - experiences with children, parents, values and so on," he says. "But I keep these stories to around 30-second snippets, so the conversation doesn't become about me. This helps the person relate to me more and makes the person more comfortable with revealing more about their background. This technique has helped me learn important things about clients that they haven't even told their families."

* The ability to hold your client's goals and values in your memory as you move through the conversation. Deep listening is important, but remembering what you've heard, and bringing it up in appropriate ways, is also crucial. By doing so, you let the other person know that you are listening and absorbing, and you make it possible for him or her to go even deeper. You'll prompt the person to continue talking and reveal new information, and this can help you create a better plan for them.

If you practice and become adept at deep listening, you will fill an extremely important role for your clients. You'll no longer be just a stockbroker, a financial advisor or even a wealth manager. Instead, you'll be the person who helped get them in touch with their own deepest needs and ideals.


John J. Bowen Jr. is founder and CEO of CEG Worldwide, a global training, research and consulting firm for advisors.