The first time a client cried in my office, it was as if I were hearing fingernails scratching on a chalkboard. I was uncomfortable and just wanted her to stop.
In my many years as a stockbroker, no one had ever cried in my office. My conversations with clients revolved mostly around the market and whether or not they should buy or sell a particular investment. When we talked about their family, it wasn't an extensive conversation; rather, it was more of a "How's everybody doing?" chat.
That changed when I became a financial planner.
Once I became a financial planner and started to dig deep into my clients' family goals and fears about the future, I realized that market performance was important but paled in comparison to life planning. In fact, a lot of planners would agree that financial planning is not about particular investments or day-to-day market swings. Instead, it is about an individual sharing his or her goals and deepest fears in the hopes of getting help from a financial professional in achieving those goals and overcoming those fears.
Clients who open up like this are putting themselves in an emotionally vulnerable position. And I have come to realize that in order to be a more effective financial planner, I have to allow myself to be vulnerable too. It was not easy at first.
What do I mean by allowing myself to be vulnerable?
First, I had to stop talking about me and my accomplishments and listen more to my clients and what they wanted to accomplish. I remember that during my first meetings, I would do most of the talking. Now, if I start to get into my second sentence during a conversation, I hear a voice in my head reminding me to shut up, because it is really not about me.
Second, I bought a box of tissues and put it on my desk. That move might seem insignificant, but for me it's huge. In the past, when someone started crying in my office, I would bolt out of my chair in search of tissue. It would take me a few minutes to find a paper towel, and I would return at about the time the crying stopped. Having a box of tissues on my desk allowed me to stay in the moment with my client. It allowed me to say my client and myself, "It's safe to cry here. This is a no-judgment environment."
Third, I had to be willing to acknowledge my own fears. Two words here: not easy. What helped were the many conversations I had with other financial planners and professionals who have been at this a lot longer than me. I'm a work in progress.
I'm not saying that being vulnerable means I feel a need to cry with my clients in order to be more effective at helping them. Not at all. I've learned, however, that by being emotionally vulnerable and in the moment with my clients, we are able to weather the highs and lows of life planning together a little better.
Frank Paré is a certified financial planner in private practice in Oakland, California. He and his firm, PF Wealth Management Group, specialize in serving professional women in transition. Frank is currently on the board of the Financial Planning Association and was a recipient of the FPA’s 2011 Heart of Financial Planning award.