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Beyond Estate Planning—Heritage Planning for Families, Pt. 3: The Guided Discovery

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In my last column in this series, I invited you to ask yourself a question about traditional financial and estate planning.  How does that planning create a meaningful and significant legacy of hope, family unity, communication, community contribution and individual accomplishment that will continually benefit your family every day, for generations to come? And if you are an advisor, like I am, how is the planning work you are doing for your clients ensuring that these things will be accomplished?  One final question for now: What would it mean to you to be able to guarantee that these positive results would be achieved in your own family and in the families you work with?

It is possible to achieve these outcomes. Thousands of families across America—and still more in Europe and South America—have successfully implemented the third element of planning—heritage planning—ensuring that future generations of their families will be prepared for both their financial and emotional inheritances. 

If you recall, there are four essential components of successful heritage planning.  They are:

  • Identify family stories, values, life lessons and experiences, and use them as the cornerstone for all their planning. 
  • Communicate effectively on an adult-to-adult level. 
  • Prepare and equip the next generations. 
  • Work together, and mentor the children in the skills they will need to succeed as individuals and as a united family. 

In this column, I will touch upon the first of those four essential components. The process of helping another person—on an individual basis, or in the context of their relationships with a larger family or even a business—to identify the stories, values, life lessons and experiences that make them unique is the starting point for all successful heritage planning. In order to help a person preserve and amplify what has made them prosperous over the years, you first need to know what those unique elements are.

You might think this would be an operation on the level of a new client intake—conduct a fact find, mine the subject for the right bits of information you need and voila!  But here it is important to draw a distinction between the normal sort of interview you are probably used to conducting—a fact find—and the special mode of inquiry that needs to be applied when the goal is to identify what a person truly values most, what they believe deep down. It is not as easy as saying, “Name your five biggest values.” Those sorts of queries—the kind that seek to drive square pegs into round holes—are lazy and unthinking at best, and deleterious at worst, at least in this context. It would be like trying to use a sledgehammer when you ought to be using a scalpel.  

People have different concepts of what constitutes a value; husbands and wives frequently have very different answers to the same questions, even after forty years of marriage. While “one-size-fits-all” questionnaires have their place in gathering basic information in the financial services industry, for this sort of application they fail utterly. 

That is why my colleagues and I have learned to employ a unique kind of interview process that is well suited to this purpose. Originally developed by university professors, researchers in education and learning methodology, and psychologists, this unique approach to gathering sensitive information is called Guided Discovery

A “normal” interview such as the fact finds you are probably used to conducting involves an exchange of information that is effected for the benefit of the interviewer.  A Guided Discovery interview is conducted for the benefit of the interviewee.  This distinction is an important one. Conducting a meaningful Guided Discovery session requires you to be fully present and to actively listen. By actively listening, instead of worrying about what your next question is going to be, the skilled practitioner is naturally able to ask relevant follow-up questions that flow with ease.

The role of the person conducting a Guided Discovery interview is to ask open-ended questions that are oriented toward getting the subject to feel comfortable in being candid about the sort of stuff that keeps them up at night, or that they are most proud of.  Honesty, transparency and earnestness are hallmarks of a successful Guided Discovery session. In these sessions, you are likely to hear laughter and see tears. Common reactions from people who have just completed a Guided Discovery interview include, “Wow, I hadn’t thought of that in thirty years,” and “I had no idea after all this time that my spouse believed that.”

Guided Discovery brings people together because it creates an environment of safety and trust; within that environment, people arrive at a new level of clarity about the people they love and the causes they believe in, and they can begin to implement structures for preserving their unique identity in the future. From there, they can best express their goals for the rest of their lives, and for their family in the future. 

How we go about doing that will be the subject of my next column in this series on Heritage Planning.


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