“We fight about money all the time,” said Zelda. “Ever since we inherited money from the family business, it’s been a source of tension.”
Stan shook his head. “What do you want from me?” he asked.
It was a good question to be asking as we sat in my office. What did Zelda want from Stan, and what did he want from her? The couple, who had come to see me for coaching, were constantly arguing about their wealth. Before, when they hadn’t had enough to pay the bills, they worked as a team. Ironically, now that they had become millionaires, they were no longer so supportive. They had lost sight of how to soothe each other about the family finances.
“Stan,” I asked, “what do you think might help Zelda when she gets upset?”
He pondered for a minute and then quietly said, “A hug?”
“Perfect,” I responded. “What do you think?” I asked, turning toward his wife.
When our eyes met, it was evident that “perfect” was not the word she would have used.
Quickly I backtracked. “Zelda,” I said, “I am sorry I spoke for you. I can see from your reaction that Stan’s idea is not a good fit. Instead of a hug, what do you need from him?”
“I don’t know,” she exclaimed, “but certainly not a hug!”
This client meeting happened a few years ago, but the memory of Zelda’s stare is etched clearly in my mind. It is a painful reminder that for advisers, curiosity is a key skill and jumping to conclusions is never prudent. While I recovered by apologizing and asking questions to gather more information, it remained a difficult meeting.
Making assumptions and losing curiosity are common mistakes made by all helping professionals, even skilled ones. You get busy or distracted.
It is vital that before each client appointment you remind yourself to focus on understanding your clients’ perspectives and metaphorically stepping into their shoes. When done well, clients feel understood and heard. When done poorly, you hit bumps in the road like I did with Stan and Zelda.
How can you maintain an open mind in client meetings and not let your own ideas get in the way? Here are three techniques to get started:
1. Identify your money mindset. A money mindset is a set of thoughts and beliefs about money and its purpose in the world. This mindset is made up of individual “scripts” or automatic thoughts that impact your saving, spending and investing habits. You money mindset is formed between the ages of 5 and 15 by watching your parents and other adults interact with money. Because most of the beliefs are formed in a child’s mind, these scripts tend to be overly simplistic when it comes to managing finances as an adult. Making matters more difficult, most of us don’t consciously know what our money mindset is. Until we identify the mindset, it impacts our financial habits without our consent. This lack of insight can be problematic in client meetings if we operate from our mindset without taking the time to discover our clients’ perspective.
By identifying your money mindset, you can notice potential blind spots and triggers for you based on your own history. In this situation, I unconsciously tried to protect Stan from Zelda’s harsh judgment. This tapped into an early childhood experience in my own family.
A bettter tactic is to teach couples about money mindsets and how curiosity about your partner can defuse financial tension. As an adviser, you can role-model this work for your clients and use it to help couples resolve differences — or at least increase mutual understanding. As with most couples, Stan and Zelda’s arguments often stemmed from having very different money histories and mindsets.
2. Uncover your conflict mindset. Talking about money is still seen as a taboo topic; therefore, most of us don’t have a rulebook on how to fight fair financially. As an adviser, it is vital for you to uncover your automatic thoughts and beliefs about conflict and learn how to help couples resolve financial disagreements in a healthy way. Whether you grew up in a home that resembled the Sopranos, where fights were loud and overt, or were reared by parents who rarely raised their voices, your upbringing influences your work with couples.
The first step is to become aware of your conflict mindset and identify its strengths and its challenges. In this example, it is clear that I prefer that conflicts be resolved quickly — hence my rush to provide the tidy solution of a hug. Had I not picked up on Zelda’s body language, I may have assumed that I helped the couple find an answer. But really, what I had tried to do was use a Band-Aid to make myself feel better, not guide Stan and Zelda toward a meaningful resolution. When I took a step back and asked them more questions about their experience, I was more effective. The discussion was not tied up in a pretty bow by the end of the meeting, but it didn’t have to be.
3. Practice curiosity. As an adviser, curiosity is your best friend. When you go into each client meeting with a healthy dose of wonder and use this to ask powerful, open-ended questions, you learn more about your clients’ motives, money mindsets, and values. This information helps you design financial plans and strategies that are more successful in the long run.
The best part is that the process fosters trust. While the meeting with Stan and Zelda was far from perfect, it was a turning point in our adviser-client relationship. For the first time, they saw that I was not just an expert but a human being who could apologize, and that I was truly curious about their experience of receiving this new-found wealth. Sometimes the most difficult clients appointments teach you and your clients the most.
Kathleen Burns Kingsbury is a wealth psychology expert, founder of KBK Wealth Connection, and the author of several books, including How to Give Financial Advice to Women and How to Give Financial Advice to Couples.