I recently attended the Financial Advisor Retirement Symposium and was impressed with the attention given to the financial life planning (FLP ) topic. Not only did several presentations target it directly, they were well attended. Being that most advisors are connoisseurs of engaging questions to use with clients, the group was furiously scribbling down many of the questions designed to unlock the so-called secrets of a client’s money thoughts and behaviors. It is exciting to see this revolutionary trend finally going mainstream, but its practical applications can be cause for concern because new and untrained advisors may approach it without understanding the big-picture implications of employing this approach. 

First, many practitioners at the conference had decades of experience and were at reflective points in their careers. Over time, and through trial and error, they have created a proven way of digging deeper and connecting clients’ emotions with their money. Unfortunately, too little time was devoted to the downside, things that can go wrong, situations to avoid, or even the best practices for advisors who want to start integrating FLP into their practice.

Having spent my early career as a social worker doing individual, group and family therapy as well as facilitating group lectures, meetings, and workshops, I have amassed a treasure trove of mistakes and awkward situations, while developing key starting points. What I learned can not only save advisors years of work and unnecessary client confusion, it can also highlight new and different ways to make the retirement planning process more personal and meaningful.   

The Context Of FLP

One of the most important things about financial life planning is the outcomes you hope to facilitate. When you ask questions such as, “What is your first memory of money?” or “What did you do with your first paycheck?” advisors may get the client’s "aha" moment that connects their current behaviors (excessive saving, overspending, avoiding risk) with their past, but they may also unearth issues that go beyond financial concerns. 

Furthermore, an advisor’s own perceptions can get in the way. We all have our own thoughts and ideas about what it means to be successful, what an ideal portfolio looks like or what a perfect retirement is. Not separating your own thoughts and feelings from those of a client can create unnecessary tension at the onset of the relationship. That makes it crucial for advisors to not only go through and complete the process they plan to use with clients, but also to understand the need to focus on the client’s needs and desires, not their own. 

FLP also brings into question how an advisor will sympathize and/or empathize with a client. What do you do when a client breaks down in tears? What comes after they disclose a family secret, reveal an addiction, sexual abuse, abandonment issue or ask if you know the therapist they are currently working with?  his stuff is not covered in typical advisor training, which is why I encourage you to think about and practice your response to these types of client revelations. It’s a form of soft skills training and role play that I have begun to offer, and advisors should expect to see more of as they begin to integrate these new methods into their practices. 

If, for example, a client divulges an issue from deep in their past, how will you respond if they ask you to answer the same questions? What will you do if a client begins crying? Will you reach for a tissue, pat their hands, or provide a hug? This is important because your interactions lead to expectations. If you don’t typically greet clients with a hug, but are now hugging them or patting their hand, what happens the next time they come to your office? Is a business-like handshake okay, or do you now have to hug? It may seem trivial, but again, if you’re not a touchy-feely person, should you be asking touchy-feely questions in your office?