Responding to Client Confidences

As an advisor you have worked hard to develop your client’s trust. As a result of this growing trust, your client will share something troubling and personal about his or her family relationships. You will hear something like: “We don’t talk to our daughter and her husband.” “My son is not capable of running the business.” “My son/daughter has let me down.” “I don’t trust my youngest daughter to manage her money.” “I don’t feel comfortable with her fiancé.” “I can’t tell him that his performance at work is not up to standards.” You sense many uncomfortable feelings behind the statement. The implicit question is “What should I do about this?” and the answer feels like it is a bit beyond your expertise and comfort level.

How do you respond? Do you nod quietly in silent agreement? Do you offer some homily about how difficult it is to raise kids? Do you offer to talk to the other family member for them? These responses do not offer much help, and they potentially escalate the issue or set you up to be blamed for the consequences. Yet, not doing something about it can only make it more difficult down the line.

To do your work as a financial advisor, we believe that you have some responsibility to respond helpfully to these personal issues. Not responding will diminish the client’s hard won trust and confidence in you. You don’t have to be a counselor (though some advisors have received training as a coach or therapist) to be helpful to your client.

The key is not to offer to “fix” the problem but rather to help clients acknowledge the issue and consider ways to address it themselves. Your client knows the issue is not easily changed. He is often thankful just to have someone listen to his or her concerns. You have been programmed to act as a problem-solver, and it takes some adjustment to shift your role to be “just a listener”. A good listener does not offer advice but helps the concerned client explore his dilemma more deeply, to discover his own resolutions.

You might say something like, “How can you bring this concern up with your son or daughter?” You might even offer to sit in on the conversation. You might ask what this means to your client by posing some open-ended questions: What makes you concerned? What have you seen that leads you to feel that way? How have you tried to do something about it? What has worked and has not? In this way, the client may discover some possible paths he has not seen before. You can also ask your client what he would like to see, how the situation might be different.

The key is to share your concern by leading clients to reflect on the issue and only then problem-solve to do something themselves about it, perhaps with your help or that of a resource you suggest.

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