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Ask (Don’t Tell) and You Shall Receive

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During the almost two decades that I’ve worked with advisory firm owners, I’ve changed my approach on explaining various elements of business management. For example, I no longer give owners reasons why they should change a behavior; and I’ve found this tactic can help many advisors in their work with clients, too.

Like business consulting, a significant part of financial advice is helping clients change their behavior. I learned long ago that the only thing that changes behavior is, well, when they change their behavior. And only they can do that. Not you.

Consequently, I’ve stopped trying to convince my clients to do something in their business, and I suggest you stop doing it with your clients, too. Instead, focus on the choices that your clients make — and help them to focus on those choices, too.

Here’s what you do:

One. The client will typically ask: “Why?” Of course, it’s the wrong question, but it’s important to recognize why they ask it.

When a client questions something you’ve suggested, what they’re really doing is resisting (and sometimes challenging) your advice. And if you start giving them reasons, you’re just opening the door for further challenges.

Instead, refocus the conversation by asking what they hope to achieve with their financial plan — and how they intend to behave to get there. To do this, ask questions.

Two. Ask enough questions to provoke their awareness.

A common problem with a client (of all wealth levels) is overspending. It also is one of the biggest problems in running a small business. You can give the overspender all the reasons why they should spend less, but that rarely changes anyone’s spending.

Why? Because you didn’t address the problem. And shaming, preaching, explaining and justifying to them really isn’t going to help. What does help is giving them the power of their own choices. Simply lay out their options and let them make the decision.

Three. After you show them you respect their choices (whether you agree or not) you can then ask them directly: “Do you want to save more and spend less?”

If the answers is “no,” don’t try to change their mind.

Here’s where it gets tricky. Many advisors will then ask “Why?” (Sigh.)

You don’t need to know why. You simply need to respect the decision.

If you practice this enough, the client, when they are ready, will come to the same conclusion you did. The hardest, most frustrating part (as Tom Petty has sung about) is the waiting.

Four. Keep asking. In your next meeting, ask them again.

Simply by asking, you’ll reinforce the notion that they have a choice, and they can always change their decision.

Five. Use the same strategy when clients come up with their own, or someone else’s investment ideas.

Give them the choice. And then help them explore their ideas: Why do you feel you want to do that?

Why do you want to do it that way? Would you like to compare that idea with other similar options? And why do you feel the need to do this now?

Six. Be respectful and interested.

People feel more empowered when they are listened to and heard. And when we feel more empowered, we believe we can change our behavior.

Changing client behavior (whether they are investors or advisors) is about helping them to see they can and they want to change. I’ve found that happens a lot more often — with less resistance — when you simply give them options and let them decide what to do.

Everyone has the power and ability to change. But it is their choice to do so.