When it comes to connecting with strangers in a new relationship, our minds often jump to associating them with a friend or family member who we know well (“you remind me of so-and-so!”)… something we do without even realizing it. The tendency to do this is part of our brain’s natural shortcuts to making sense of the world; if we can associate someone new as being ‘similar’ to someone we already know, it becomes easier to figure out how to interact with and relate to them. Yet while this is often helpful and poses no problems, in some cases our tendency to substitute in another existing relationship can be counterproductive, blinding us to really taking the time to understand the person in front of us, or even causing adverse reactions when it turns out the person we’re actually relating to is not like the one our brains are associating them with! And this is especially relevant for financial advisors and their clients, where failing to really understand the person in front of us can impair the relationship between the advisor and client, and undermine the open lines of communication that are so important to ensure that the advisor is able to obtain the information needed to provide the necessary advice (and deliver it in a way that the client will actually implement it!).
Drawing from the world of therapy and mental health, this phenomenon of a patient projecting the values and characteristics of someone with whom they are very familiar onto the professional they have engaged, but don’t yet know very well, is referred to as “transference”. Similarly, the professional projecting values of someone else onto their patient is referred to as “counter-transference.” For example, a therapist may remind a new patient of the patient’s own brother. If the patient has had a supportive and caring relationship with their brother, they may immediately feel an unfounded trust for their new therapist, based on how the patient feels about the brother. Alternately, if a patient reminds their therapist of an intensely disliked relative with whom they are always fighting, they may experience counter-transference issues and may find it difficult to empathize with compassion toward their patient. And, like therapists and their patients, financial advisors and their clients are just as prone to engaging in transference and counter-transference behaviors during their relationship.
For instance, when difficult relationships (not with the advisor) in a client’s life remind the client of their advisor, unhealthy transference tendencies can cause the client to have trouble communicating openly with their advisor about important financial affairs, or make them unwilling to accept the advisor’s advice. Similarly, problems can arise for advisors if a client were to remind them subconsciously of a person with whom the advisor has an unhealthy relationship, such as the advisor who struggles to give hard advice to an elderly client that reminds them of their own mother. This difficulty to communicate becomes problematic, not only because it can prevent information crucial to the financial planning engagement from being shared, but can also eventually lead to feelings of frustration and burnout – for both advisor and client.
To address the situation and prevent counter-transference-based tendencies from harming relationships with clients, advisors can use various techniques to practice awareness of any counter-transference behaviors they may be impacted by. As a first step, advisors can identify any of their own personal triggers that may be impacting their client relationships. Recognizing and understanding the differences between the client and the other person being mentally associated with the client, who may be the actual cause of the advisor’s personal triggers, can be helpful for the advisor to see the client clearly as the unique individual that they are. A self-analysis tool that can be helpful for the advisor to work through counter-transference issues is the Money Script Inventory, which helps to identify subconscious beliefs about money (which can itself be a springboard for further investigation into the actual causes of those beliefs, which can often provide clues to identify counter-transference causes). Another technique is for the advisor to assess their own money history by reflecting on their own personal relationship with money and the challenges they have faced around money.
While self-analysis can be sufficient for some advisors to work through counter-transference issues, others may prefer the support and guidance of a mental health professional themselves. Therapists understand and know how to help their patients work through transference issues, and are themselves trained to work through their own counter-transference habits.
Ultimately, the key point is that advisors have access to tools that can help them recognize their own counter-transference tendencies, which can help them maintain healthy relationships with their clients, and that are key to open communication and good financial planning!