Tuesday, December 27. 2011
The inspiration for today's blog post comes from a question I received recently from another planner, which simply asked "What one skill (above all others), if you developed and did it in an excellent fashion, would have the biggest impact on you as a financial planner?" Given the myriad of skills and knowledge necessary to succeed in the remarkably complex and multidisciplinary profession of financial planning, at first it seemed difficult to choose just one.
Certainly, many who know me would probably have expected me to respond with some kind of skillset or knowledge tied to technical expertise, given my proverbial "alphabet soup" of degrees and designations. But in truth, having the technical knowledge isn't relevant or useful if you can't truly understand the needs of your clients in the first place. Otherwise, you're simply an expert at carrying around a hammer and looking at every problem like it's a nail; you may even become highly proficient at fitting square pegs into round holes (and occasionally happening upon a square hole, too); nonetheless, you're not actually an expert at doing real financial planning, and providing solutions that help clients achieve their own goals, if you're not skilled at really exploring what those goals are in the first place.
In reality, it's hard to overestimate the value of good listening skills in financial planning. In watching other planners interact with clients over the years, I've observed several "levels" of effective listening:
Level 1 - There is no effective listening by the planner, or should I say "planner". The individual - generally simply a product salesman at this point - it conducting a one-way conversation, just trying to pitch the product as a solution, regardless of the prospective client's needs (or lack thereof).
Level 2 - There is a limited amount of effective listening by the planner, at least enough to hear some of the needs that the prospect or client is articulating. However, the conversation is generally still one-sided towards the planner, who may simply grasp onto pieces of what has been said, to once again try to fit it into the planner's pre-determined solution - whether it be an annuity, a managed investment portfolio, some income or estate tax planning strategy, or otherwise. In the end, listening is only done to the extent necessary to identify how parts of what the prospect or client needs to match the already-intended solution.
Level 3 - Some real amount of listening is beginning to occur. The planner starts to look beyond the comfortable and standard recommendations and solutions, and starts to hear first what the client or prospect really says is needed, and only second begins to formulate what those recommendations might be. However, the listening is generally still somewhat "superficial" - all that's heard are the exact words being said.
Level 4 - At this level, the real active listening begins. The planner begins to hear not just what is verbally said, but perceives some nonverbal communication signals as well, from posture and eye contact to gestures. The planner engages in some active listening steps to make the client feel heard, reflecting back and paraphrasing what's been said to clarify understanding and help connect, and showing real empathy. Solutions grow naturally out of the conversation; the planner is trying to step away from any existing biases.
Level 5 - The planneris alert and attentive in consistently and proactively applying the principles of active listening; the process is not merely an intuitive conversation, but represents a trained and practiced skillset of the advisor. The client or prospect feels as though he/she is being really heard and understood, with a genuine empathetic connection to the advisor. Communication is not simply about what is said verbally, or even what the body language suggests, but is a conversation that drives to the root issues and deeper feelings. The planner doesn't even begin to formulate recommendations until the end of the process, and there are no preconceptions about what might be right; by the time solutions are discussed with the client, they are such a natural fit to the needs that were discussed that they seem to be the only natural course of action.
Not unlike driving - where 80% of drivers rate themselves as being at least slightly above average - in my experience the majority of advisors believe that they spend their time at levels 3 and 4 with their clients. In reality, though, many are probably closer to levels 2 and 3; they have a strong tendency to talk about their expertise, knowledge, services, products, and solutions first, and only secondarily get around to actually hearing what the client really wants and needs, much less taking the proactive steps necessary to make the client feel truly heard and understood. The level 2 conversation might focus on fitting every client into the firm's financial planning process, or investment management portfolio - it's not necessarily about traditional "sales" products, but the outcome is the same - that the conversation in reality is more an effort to make the client see the value of what the planner has to offer, than on what the client truly needs.
In fact, some psychologists I've spoken with who teach active listening skills suggest that almost no one would consistently reach beyond what I've defined here as "level 3" until/unless the planner has actually spent some real time learning the skills and practicing them; this level of active listening simply does not come naturally for most human beings, especially in a professional business context where we also feel the pressure to demonstrate that we're the experts and should be paid for the advice that we offer.
Newer planners in particular often struggle with these skills, as there's so much to absorb - not only the verbal (and nonverbal) communication of the client, but trying to really understand it, reflect it back, and connect with the client. At the same time, the mind races to just connect the financial planning concepts to the discussion that's underway, while simultaneously trying to capture the information in notes to work on the financial plan, and ask the probing questions necessary to determine which recommendations and solutions may ultimately be correct. The pressure is even more severe if it's a prospective client conversation, and the planner is also just trying to convince the prospect that it's worth signing up for a financial plan in the first place. The common end result is that eventually the newer planner ends out doing more talking than listening... especially if he/she is also trying to demonstrate value as an expert in the first place.
So if I had to recommend one skill to learn that would have the biggest positive impact on someone advancing themselves as a financial planner working with clients, it would be learning to engage active listening skills effectively. Planners who can do that best can ultimately deliver solutions so "obvious" - because they match the needs and the situation perfectly - that success with clients easily follows. It's a much more effective path to success than simply trying to be the best and most knowledgeable expert at making every situation look like a nail because your only tool is a hammer, whatever form of product or service offering that hammer might take.
So what do you think? Where do most planners rank on the listening levels? Where do you think you rank? Have you ever engaged in training to improve your listening skills? Is there another skill that you think is ultimately more important than this to the success of a planner?
What one skill (above all others), if you developed and did it in an excellent fashion, would have the biggest impact on you as a financial planner? This is the question that was posed to the leaders in the financial planning profession. Initially, the pl
Tracked: Jan 11, 09:21
Great minds think alike, I guess.
Great blog post, Michael. And an important topic that doesn't get the attention it deserves, in my opinion.
Great article. And I want to underscore John's point. Coming at it from a management consultant's perspective (not unlike a financial planner), a great lesson I learned from David Maister: The problem is never what the client said it was in the first meeting.
In fact, the one profession for which listening is literally at the heart of the matter--therapy, or at least some forms of it--puts this sort of transformative experience at the heart of the matter. It is by talking, with an empathetic listener, that the client not only learns what (s)he needs, but gains even the motivation and force to achieve it.
In my own work (I co-wrote The Trusted Advisor with Maister) I would also caution against us thinking that higher levels are always better. It's more true that each level has its time and its place, and the professional's art lies in knowing when to shift levels--on a dime, when necessary.
Good stuff, thank you.
In a radio interview, physician, clinical professor of family and community medicine at the University of California San Francisco (UCSF), and author Rachel Naomi Remen extoled the art of listening to patients. She prepares her medical students to handle some of the most difficult situations by teaching them the power of undistracted attention, of simply being there and listening. Her only instruction is: Listen generously.
When Remen asks her students to reflect on a person who helped them at a hard time in their lives, she finds that one of the most helpful things that person did was listen. One of the least helpful things was to give advice without knowing the full story.
It should be refreshing and liberating to realize that advisors can be helpful with personal and even difficult topics by simply listening and not offering advice at all. As Philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti expressed succinctly, “Freedom from the desire for an answer is essential to the understanding of a problem." Freeing ourselves from self-imposed expectations to have all the answers allows us to focus on listening and understanding.
More at http://bit.ly/s32tUs and at the AiCPA PFP conference this January.
Excellent piece and I like your hierarchy of listening. I think the fiduciary standard belongs at Level 5, and this may be another way of thinking about it.
At Directions for Women, we are developing protocols for money circles with women, where the advisor-host does not show up as the expert, but as an attentive, compassionate listener. We believe this is essential to building women's trust in advisors and the financial planning process.
Happy New Year!
In fact, I can say that my experience with Life Planning is really helping me [though being a novice in the life planning area]to listen more, relate to clients at a deeper level and help them find their own goals,objectives and priorities in life. Summarizing in a snapshot of what they said during the conversations [in their own language] in many different areas of their life really helps them to buy into the idea of financial planning much better that they are so eager to implement them than they were earlier..
And I totally agree with Jean Luc Bourdon's observations on this topic..
I think the CFP Board of Standards - Financial Planning Practice Standards captures both qualitative and quantitative aspects of financial planning very well..
It is just that we have all along focused mostly on the quantitative aspect of the practice management... It is now time to focus a lot more on 'Qualitative' aspects of financial planning to assist clients.