Originally posted at fa-mag.com by Mitch Anthony, October 1, 2022.
“Curiosity killed the cat, but for a while I was a suspect.” —Steven Wright
Have you ever watched the political talk shows where there are four or five columnists, all brimming over with opinions to the point that none of them can let any of the others finish a thought without being interrupted? This game of “opinionous interruptus” reaches its flash point on each respective issue when the host offers an opinion-ending pontification with a tone that implies, “This thought is so final and incisive that there is no need to discuss this issue any further.” Everybody is talking and nobody is really listening; they’re just waiting for their turn to talk. People are fighting for the spotlight and hoping to be seen as the authority.
The conversations you enter into today may likely have the same emotional undercurrents that we see animated in an over-the-top fashion on these debate shows:
• People want to be heard.
• People want their opinions to be appreciated.
• People enjoy having the spotlight.
• Control of a conversation requires talking.
If you’ve ever had a conversation where the other party couldn’t ask enough questions about you—where you felt like you were talking to a biographer who was trying to capture the essence of your life and your world—you would certainly remember that conversation. But those sorts of discussions are so rare that most of us can count the number we have had in our lifetimes on one hand. Many people have told me that they cannot remember ever having such a conversation.
It stands to reason that if you are an advisor starting such discussions with your clients, you will be the one standing out—the one tall stalk of wheat among others blown by the winds of narcissism. It’s easy to identify truly curious people, those truly interested in us, the truly engaged conversationalists in our lives. There are so few of them. The attention grabbing, “Notice me and my wit,” “I’ll one-up that story,” self-orbiting conversationalists, however, are lost in a sea of faces.
I want to focus on the benefits you offer your clients when you ask them intelligent questions.
Benefit 1: A good question allows people their space on the stage of life.
Imagine that your office is a stage where a drama of personal finance is being played out. The narrator describes the setting, the lights come up and the spotlight finds the lead actor—who is your client. You are the supporting actor in this script. If you keep in mind your true role, you will realize that most of your good lines in this script are intelligent questions, not clever witticisms or brilliant pitches.
People simply want to be noticed. Not only that, they want to be recognized, affirmed, respected, even admired. One workplace study revealed that being recognized more often was more important to most workers than being paid more. One of the greatest favors you can do for any person is to establish at the very beginning of a conversation where your spotlight is pointed. Not only will your clients be flattered that you are interested in them and their world, they will warm to you in the glow of that spotlight.
Benefit 2: Inquiry elevates people’s intellect and reason.
“Even a fool, when he holds his peace is counted wise: he that shuts his lips is esteemed a man of understanding.”—Proverbs 17:28
When you do the asking instead of the telling, you elevate the intellect, reason and thoughts of the person you’re talking to. Rare is the person who will resist your attempts to understand them—their thoughts and ideas or how they came by them. People are unaccustomed to being interviewed in a manner that a great interviewer saves for very important people. They will note, “Somebody actually cares to know what I think and why I think the way I think … now there’s a shocker!”
Benefit 3: Intelligent inquiry recognizes an individual’s uniqueness.
Look at the exponential growth of self-publishing and the companies that exist to help capture people’s stories on audio or video. When you do, you realize: Everyone does have a story to tell.
While not every person’s story will be interesting to others, it is interesting to them—and they want to tell it. Even more unusual, then, is the individual who attempts to cajole the story out of them. When advisors act as biographers this way, they’ll find that their clients feel more connected and loyal to them, because the advisors cared enough to listen.
There’s an advisor in Canada named Rick who uses my Life Centered Planning (LCP) system for gathering biographical information on clients. In this system, there are a few profiles that the client fills out and the rest is intended for the advisor to fill in after talking with the client. Against my advice, Rick decided to send the entire biographical workbook to his clients to fill out with their history, current life transitions, principles and future goals. I thought it would be too daunting for a client to have to fill in all the answers outside the flow and framework of a conversation.
What Rick found, however, was that he was getting back over 90% of the workbooks completely filled out and returned before the clients even came in for their meeting. They told him that they loved the process of telling their stories—where they were from, what it was like growing up, what they wanted to be, and what they became. They wanted to share information about their lives, about the challenges and opportunities they faced, and about the values and principles they followed in helping their families, lives and investments to grow. It was as close as most people will ever get to actually writing a book about themselves. This desire stored in the heart of the earliest human to the most recent is what we will call the “autobiographical urge.”
Benefit 4: Your questions will reveal your clients’ priorities and important issues.
When you ask your clients questions, you can reveal their personal land mine and gold mine stories—and you can save yourself time by learning those important things early before mistakes are made.
For example, an advisor once told me about a time he spent 15 minutes giving an investment presentation to somebody, telling the gentleman about a secondary offering available in a biotech company. At the end of the presentation, the man said, “No way! … My brother-in-law lost his shirt in biotech when the FDA failed to approve a drug.”
This advisor lamented, “I wish I’d asked how he felt about biotech investments before I gave my brilliant presentation.”
Agreed. We always find ourselves further ahead as a result of asking than we will be by telling. And by asking well-thought-out questions, we help clients sift through their own priorities and force them to decide what is important enough to act on.
We can even get revealing answers by asking questions as benign as, “What is it that brings you here today?” which is something a good doctor might start with when examining a patient. Because advisors have been taught to focus on possibilities (goals), they might miss the opportunities they would find helping people manage financial pain and financial priorities.
Here are some questions to stimulate clients and help them sort out their priorities.
• What is the most important financial issue in your life at this moment?
• What is going on in your life right now that could have a major financial impact?
• What do you see as the biggest threat to your financial security?
• If you had all the money you would ever need, what issue would you first address?
• What do you want your money to do for you?
Questions like these help clients figure out what matters most—and helps you in the process of advising decide what matters most.
Benefit 5: Good questions raise personal awareness and often help save clients from themselves.
Most of us don’t have to look much further than the bathroom mirror to see someone who has done something really stupid with his or her money. Most of us have stories about how at some point we threw hard-earned money down a sinkhole. But some of us are more aware of our weaknesses than others, who know only subconsciously and continually fall into self-sabotaging money patterns: They might mismanage their debt. They might fall for too-good-to-be-true investment “opportunities” touted by golfing buddies. They might fail to organize their records or bring logic to their financial plans. They might lack diverse investments. Or they might simply be in complete denial about their disjointed financial state.
If you ask your clients good questions, you can help bring some understanding of these destructive financial habits and patterns to the surface and show your clients how to pursue more constructive money behavior.
Consider the client who might never act on your advice because they were cheated once and now suspect everybody is cheating them. Once you talk about this hyper-suspicion about money, the client might start to take your advice and stop working against their own best interests.
I’ve found this simple question to be a good place to start: “What would you describe as your best and worst experiences with money so far?” That question raises clients’ self-awareness about the topic.
People come to you for direction and answers. But the wisest path isn’t necessarily found in the answers you’ve already formulated beforehand. Sometimes it’s found instead in the questions you bring to the dialogue. This lets you put the light on the client and their story. And you can see the difference it makes in your relationships with them.