The 1 tactic advisors should use during the coronavirus crisis

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As a pandemic stalks the globe and markets swing wildly, there’s one thing financial advisors need to do like never before: listen.

That’s the counsel of George Kinder, the founder of the Kinder Institute for Life Planning, which has trained more than 3,000 financial planners worldwide since it launched in 2003.

George Kinder, founder of the Kinder Institute for Life Planning, at work in his writing cabin in Massachusetts.

The institute trains its life planning advisors to facilitate an internal inquiry for clients, giving them time and space to answer questions many have never asked themselves. By helping clients unearth and articulate their unacknowledged fears and hopes, clients tap into wellsprings of subconscious energy that can drive them to start businesses, sell them, retire early or to pursue whatever goal they may have put off or never put into words, Kinder says. Sometimes those goals turn out to be as surprisingly small and uncomplicated as more time with a person, or a passion project.

“I’m fired up right now because I’m really proud of the work we’ve done in the past 20 years with the life planning movement in that we have built advisors who are the right people for this time,” says Kinder, who’s 71.

BECOMING A ‘CONTAINER’

The concept of listening intently is core not only to the institute’s approach to planning, but to Kinder himself. A Harvard graduate who took a brain hard-wired for math and applied it to major in English, a subject he found more difficult (with a minor in economics), he spent 30 years as a planner and tax advisor before starting the institute.

“I’ve been a practitioner several hours a day for over 50 years,” he says of his mindfulness and meditation discipline. “It has a great deal to do with the listening skills we teach in life planning.”

The energetic advisor and author is riding out the coronavirus pandemic at the suburban Boston home he shares with his wife and 16-year-old twin daughters. Kinder retreats for much of each day to a writing cabin on his property on a spit of land on a lake, where he’s currently working on four books simultaneously, each project feeding off the other.

Kinder says he’s living the life he once could not have acknowledged he craved — much the same way many clients reflexively deny themselves the pursuit and fulfillment of their own true desires.

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To get at those desires, Kinder and his colleagues at the institute teach planners to “hold space” and to become a “container” for clients. That begins with planners learning to pay attention to their own buried emotions, no matter how rocky, and to articulate and begin working toward their own dreams. Practicing the moment-by-moment discipline of listening to themselves builds empathy for clients. Once trained, life planning advisors are then able to sit with clients and become quiet enough so that clients’ clamoring emotions can surface, along with, ultimately, new ideas about their futures.

To become registered life planners, advisors must complete three phases of instruction through the institute: a workshop, a training and a mentorship program. Most who complete the process are also CFPs. The costs range from $8,770 to $10,145.

Cristina Livadary, co-founder of Mana Financial Life Design, a fully virtual RIA in Santa Monica, California, who received her life planning certificate in 2016, says three clients have joined her young firm, affiliated with the XY Planning Network, in the past week: one from Schwab Private Client, one from a broker-dealer and one who was a DIYer. Livadary gave up a 10-year career wholesaling investment products to work at RIAs, before deciding to start one herself.

The new clients share one thing in common, she’s found: they were not getting enough personalized and comprehensive attention at a time when they sorely need it.

“With recent market volatility, financial planning requires complex cognition and understanding of all the moving parts [in a person’s life] and then combining what is truly important to you,” Livadary says.

The life planning process is so differentiated, she says, that after she helped run a training for the institute last fall in Hana, Hawaii, 10 advisors emailed to ask if she would do life planning for them. Livadary declined, she says, because her new practice, launched in 2018, wasn’t prepared to handle the requests given that life planning involves comprehensive work.

AN ETERNAL 2 MINUTES

Life planning advisors often begin by posing clients three central questions:

  1. Imagine that you have enough money to take care of all of your needs. How would you live your life and would you change anything?
  1. A doctor tells you that you have only five to 10 years left to live. What will you do in the time you have remaining?
  1. You learn you have 24 hours to live. Ask yourself: What did I miss? Who did I not get to be? What did I not get to do?


Most clients “will find question No. 3 profoundly inspiring or disturbing,” Kinder says. “But the disturbance handled by a professional is transforming suffering into wisdom.” (Which happens to be the title of one of Kinder’s books.)

The institute teaches planners to be quiet and listen when clients answer — and not just for their first answer, but for their second or third.

For instance, when life planner Brad Tafoya, a partner in a tax-planning practice in Durango, Colorado, asked a client, a hardworking man who runs a local business with his wife, that final question, the man wrote, “I did not get to have a good relationship with my middle son.”

Tafoya read that sentence back to the client and waited, sensing a wave of emotion the client was trying to push down. The man told Tafoya, “ ‘Well, it’s been coming for a while now and I might as well let it go,’ and he just started sobbing and his wife and I just held that space for him. And I just sat there and looked him in the eyes. What we are taught [at the institute] is someone needs to move through an emotion on their own until they get to the other side. He sobbed for what felt like an eternity, but what might have been two minutes.

“Your first thought,” adds Tofaya, who became interested in life planning after his 20-year marriage ended in divorce several years ago, “is what does that have to do with money and finance?”

It turns out the client had been working long hours to keep food on the table and, as a result, was not seeing his middle school-aged son as much as he wanted to. After the session, the man made a point of coming home for lunch with his son and taking the boy to work with him when possible.

It’s not lost on Tafoya that another planner might have urged the man to keep working long hours for a purely financial outcome.

“In the old days advisors were overly intellectually trained and they overly leapt to reason,” Kinder says. “Without the skills of empathy, the client doesn’t feel connected with this advisor.”

ADVISORS FIRST

Experiences like Tafoya’s reinforce Kinder’s conviction that life planning is the only way advisors can deliver true fiduciary service.

“We tend to focus on how charges are made. That is very important,” Kinder says. “I’ve been a passionate advocate for fee-only [service] for 40 years, but life planning is the great skill if we are all going to be fiduciaries,” he says.

As part of the education process, life planning advisors first need to learn about their own emotions and live their own life plans. If they don’t,” Kinder says, “you are going to come across as inauthentic. You will be pushing [clients] to do things, rather than listening and empathizing and inspiring them.”

After teaching life planning for years, one of Kinder’s longtime colleagues challenged him about an unrealized dream of his own: writing books on poetry and photography. “It was such an odd dream that I didn’t talk to anybody about it,” Kinder recalls. He’s since written one book containing his poetry and photography and a book on mindfulness, “Transforming Suffering Into Wisdom.” He also has written several planner-oriented books, including “Seven Stages of Money Maturity” and “Life Planning for You.”

HORRIBLE AND WONDERFUL

Kinder has optimistic words for advisors to pass along to clients in the throes of coronavirus anxiety.

“The finances are going to be OK. In the long run we are going to be OK,” he says. “As long as we don’t get sick and severely sick, it’s a wonderful time to reflect on ourselves, our communities and what do we want.”

Not that the risks everyone is facing aren’t real, he says. Over Christmas, Kinder believes he caught pneumonia from a passenger sitting next to him on a plane. Given his age and the fact that his energy isn’t where he’d like it to be right now — “I’m at about 40%,” he says — the shared sense of fragility is not lost on him. That’s especially true with two rambunctious daughters who, he says, aren’t keen on being locked up inside all the time.

“I mean, it’s horrible,” he adds, “but it’s wonderful it’s happening at a time when we are all stirred up anyway and we need to think, what is our meaning and our purpose as a civilization.” To that end, he published his most recent book, “A Golden Civilization and the Map of Mindfulness,” in 2018.

It seeks to answer a question he says has become only more pressing in recent weeks: “How do we transform what is happening right now into something extraordinary?”

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Client relations Holistic financial planning George Kinder RIAs Practice management Client relations Client acquisition Coronavirus
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