Should advisors use behavioral manipulation for their clients’ own good?

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BALTIMORE – Helping clients meet their financial goals is essential. But pushing clients to exceed those goals can propel advisors to a new level.

“We’re dealing with money, but we’re not dealing with money,” Martin Seay, a CFP and assistant professor at Kansas State University, said at the FPA annual conference. Seay is an expert on positive psychology, which attempts to help already well-functioning individuals achieve their goals — even goals they are not aware of.

“Historically, financial planning has sought to … move people to financial functioning,” he said. “That is, can we get people to the point where they can retire?”

However, Seay believes that when advisors use positive psychology tools, they can make clients happier than they imagined possible. While he admits that life-coaching and financial advising have grown in recent years, there are other important tests.

“The signature strength exercise is based on the premise that when we are using the strengths in our lives we are happier,” said Sarah Asebedo, a CFP who's an assistant professor at Texas Tech. “One of the challenges is identifying what are our strengths and how are we using them.”

A “Values in Action” survey can help clients determine those key strengths.

“You can take the results of the VIA survey and apply into a work setting or your home life,” she said.

Asebedo believes that advisors should have clients focus on their top five characteristics and determine how to best use those strengths in all facets of their lives, not simply at work or at home, but also in their community.

She said that this survey helps shed light on what clients can focus on in retirement. For instance, a dominant characteristic in the workplace can be utilized at home leaving the client feeling fulfilled despite no longer being employed.

An important positive psychological exercise that advisors can use is known as the “What went well” exercise, Asebedo says. “It has been shown to increase happiness levels over time.”

With this exercise, an advisor would have their client, at the end of each day, write down three good things that happened and explain why they went well.

“It’s important to write them down and pay attention to the explanatory style as to why they think that event went well,” she said. “How we explain good events matters.”

She pointed out that clients describing good events in a negative way can shed light on their personality. If this is the case, Asebedo believes that advisors can identify and help to turn clients into more optimistic people.

“Sometimes when bad events happen in our lives they overshadow the good events,” she said. “So we have to put in extra effort to think of, and remember, those good events that happen in our lives.

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