Until clients agree to implement a plan for their finances, estates, dental health or other professional services, we, the professionals, aren’t able to move ahead. You may have gathered the data, crunched the numbers and worked out a reasonable and perfectly logical course of action, but sometimes everything stops for no apparent reason.

The problem is simple but not easy. In many situations and for many clients there is an emotional or social need that isn’t met and that void drags the whole process to a standstill. The client may not realize they’re stuck, and you may not realize it either— but stuck they are and stuck they’re likely to remain unless you’re able to discover the unmet emotional need and address it if you can.

Many unsigned agreements and never-implemented plans are sitting in a folder waiting for someone to ask a good question or two, listen to an answer that may seem irrational and stay with the client until that person is ready to hear more data. Explaining the logic (again), demonstrating what we know and how brilliant we are “should” work, but it doesn’t. When clients won’t move, we need to find another path. Ideally, we create the situation where the client asks for more information.

I was asked by a financial advisor to try to unstick a client. As is often the case, both the client and the professional are stuck. In our first meeting, Peter, the wealth advisor who was referred by a client of mine, explained his frustration with his client Jack.

“Jack inherited $5 million of a poorly performing stock, which he won’t diversify or sell. This position is a major part of his portfolio.  He is a bright, practical man. He’s married, has no children. He hopes to retire in 5-7 years. Holding onto this stock could keep him from a successful retirement and he won’t listen to reason.”
I asked Peter what he knew about this inheritance.

“Jack’s grandfather left it to him.”

When I asked for details, Peter admitted he hadn’t asked for any more than that. Knowing how complex family ties can be, my emotional radar pinged me.

It takes time to develop a relationship where a person trusts that you really care—we all know when someone is trying but not really interested. This is one of those times when only the real deal will work. The initial step is to ask sincere, curious questions and then listen to the answers. This step takes time, but it is an investment that pays dividends when clients decide to trust you and begin to implement.

Peter asked that I coach him before the meeting, and attend in case he needed my assistance. My initial suggestions were for us to create some good questions he needed to ask and that he show he heard the answers by rephrasing them back to the client or reflecting on the emotions involved.

At the client meeting Peter introduced me matter-of-factly as their financial behavior and transition specialist and after a brief catch-up, he followed our plan and asked about the stock.  “Can you tell me more about the stock you inherited from your grandfather?”   And then he quietly waited for Jack’s answer.

After a bit of reflective listening and a couple of focused questions, Peter learned that Jack’s grandfather told him not to sell the stock until he had children.  Jack had pledged to his grandfather that he would abide and didn’t want to go back on his promise even though he and his wife had no children and wouldn’t have any.

Peter didn’t know what else to say or ask, so I spoke to Jack and reflected on the emotional bind.

“What a dilemma for you:   If you sell the stock, you break your word to your grandfather, but it makes no sense to hold on to it. Quite a bind.”

 Jack said, “I do feel trapped but honoring my vow is paramount.”

I asked what he thought his grandfather might say now, given the stock company’s accounting scandals and Jack’s age.

“Times are different now. I don’t know what he’d say.”   I sensed his increased receptivity and asked if his grandfather would think it advisable to hold the stock forever, given that he and his wife Marie were not going to have children.”

“After looking at this from another point of view, I can hear my grandfather telling us to think for ourselves and not ‘be sheep’.” He added that, in fact, his grandfather might be upset if he didn’t diversify.  “But I did give him my word,” Jack said, still ambivalent about how to proceed.

“So he might want you to diversify, but it’s still hard to change the agreement.”

When I saw signs that Jack looked relaxed, I asked, “Would it be helpful to have Peter take another look at the numbers?”   He agreed and after just a few minutes, Jack decided to sell a fifth of the stock.

After underscoring Jack’s agreement to diversify $1,000,000 of his stock, Peter was eager to work out the details, but I could see that Jack needed time to come to terms with his decision. To Peter’s initial dismay, I asked if Jack wanted to continue today or schedule another appointment.

Emotions play a positive role in all decision making and we ignore them at our peril. We need to invite client history and feelings into our calculations and assist them to find a path toward implementing plans that are in their best interest. Ask questions, listen carefully and trust that your clients will know when you are really interested. Listening shows your interest in them. Questions show your interest in them. Present a plan that reflects all their needs—financial and emotional.

And, of course, we are here to help when you’re stuck. Contact us to strategize more effective questions you or your team members can ask. We can also help you develop other communication strategies that encourage positive momentum. Simple tweaks can make a real difference.

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