When financial planning clients think about their future, they might imagine a relaxing retirement, world travel, or other pleasant experiences. What they’re probably not considering is their own death, even though everyone’s time remaining on Earth is finite (even if the number of years they have left is unknowable). And using this perspective, advisors can add value for clients by helping them prioritize their goals and explore whether their current behaviors match their desired outcomes.
With this in mind, it is easy to see how George Kinder’s three Life Planning questions help clients focus on the things that matter most to them. While Kinder’s first Life Planning question asks clients to ‘dream of freedom’, and to describe their ideal future life if nothing were to hold them back, the second question asks the client to do the same but, this time, while imagining they only have 5 to 10 years left to live.
The goal of the second Kinder Life Planning question is to encourage the client to focus on the present and to analyze gaps between how the client is actually living today and how they said they wanted to be living if all they had were the next 5 to 10 years. While this can help clients find more clarity around the particularly important aspects of their lives right now, it can also lead to potentially intense feelings of grief and/or loss.
While clients may feel vulnerable and uncomfortable having this discussion, advisors using the Kinder questions can help ease their clients’ discomfort by welcoming and normalizing any emotions that may come up, while keeping the focus on a deep exploration of the client’s priorities and specific goals. During this conversation, it is important for the advisor to offer complete support for and acceptance of the client, with the intent to discover – not to judge – the client’s views, using techniques such as exploratory questions and repeating back what they hear from the client.
When wrapping up the conversation around the second Life Planning question, the main objective is to determine how the client’s goals will be integrated into their financial plan (e.g., through a ‘statement of purpose’) and to identify how the relationship that exists between the financial planner and the client will support implementation. This is a way of grounding the discussion back to the financial plan and giving the client some framework of momentum.
Ultimately, the key point is that Kinder’s second Life Planning question forces clients to prioritize their goals within a restricted timeline. And because this question often elicits answers and insights that can be profound and emotionally painful, potentially exposing gaps between their current and desired behavior, it is important for advisors to be prepared to help clients gain clarity around how their priority gaps will be reconciled with sensitivity and compassion. Even though this can be a difficult conversation, in the end, it can lead to a deeper understanding of the client’s most important and immediate priorities, while also cultivating a growing sense of trust and confidence that enriches the advisor-client relationship!
The 3 questions used in George Kinder’s Life Planning process are powerful questions. They are designed to be asked in sequence, walking the client through related yet very different scenarios. The first question, discussed in depth in an earlier article, asks the client to ‘dream of freedom’, and to describe their ideal future life if nothing were to hold them back.
This question is followed by a second question – which is the focus of this article – that asks the client to describe how they would answer the same question, but with only a few years left to live. The last question – to be discussed in a later article – asks the same question again, but gives the client only 1 day left to live.
Importantly, while the first question can raise some deep feelings around priorities and values for the client, the second question will require even heavier emotional work. Furthermore, the importance for the advisor to offer their complete support and acceptance of clients – and of clients’ experiences, goals, dreams, and pain – cannot be understated.
Unconditional positive regard, a principle of client-centered therapy, was developed by Carl Rogers and Abraham Maslow and emphasizes the importance of supporting and working to understand the client by “respecting the client as a human being with [their] own free will and operating under the assumption that [they are] doing the best they can.” This is a guiding principle of Life Planning and is a basic tenet of humanist psychological counseling and therapy – it is absolutely important, regardless of whether the advisor uses these questions with clients as a Registered Life Planner or as someone who wants to use only some aspects of Life Planning without committing to the full Life Planning process.
Kinder’s Second Question Kills The Client’s Future Self
George Kinder’s first question, the ‘dream of freedom’ question, helps advisors to guide their client in envisioning an ideal future reality through a process of co-creation, which builds trust and connection between the advisor and client. And having built that trust and connection, the second question asks the client to go further. Which means that advisors cannot ask the questions out of order; the first question must come before the second, as the discussion of the perfect future – the client’s ‘dream of freedom’ – intentionally sets the stage for the second question, which moves the advisor and the client from a conceptual ideal, taking place at some time in the future, to a more focused discussion of the present.
The second question goes as follows:
This time, you visit the doctor who tells you that you have only 5 to 10 years left to live. The good part is that you won’t ever feel sick (you will remain as healthy as you are today for at least 5 years). The bad news is that you will have no notice of the moment of death. What will you do in the time you have remaining to live? Will you change your life? How will you do it?
Because this evocative question can raise very powerful and uncomfortable emotions for the client, advisors should ensure that they first establish a good foundation of trust and connection through the discussions raised by the first Life Planning question.
Beyond eliciting a potentially strong initial reaction from the client in response to such a heavy question, this question tells the client that their future self is now dead. Many advisors may be familiar with the dynamic relationship that some clients have between their ‘current’ selves and their ‘future’ selves – their current self may like to spend their money today while making plans to save for their future self, or they may envision how their future self will spend more time with their grandkids (perhaps even unborn grandkids) in retirement while their current self keeps working a job they don’t really like but that is worth it to enable their future self’s vision.
This second Life Planning question, though, takes away the client’s ability to delegate tasks to their future self, as the future self is now simply gone. Clients are now confined to the present and must make a dramatic shift away from any paradigm that includes their future self.
Importantly, being confined to the present – which is what question 2 forces clients to consider – can psychologically impact clients in 2 noteworthy ways that advisors should be prepared for when they ask this question: 1) clients may have heightened clarity around what is particularly important in their lives right now, and 2) they may experience intense feelings of grief and/or loss.
Grief can arise simply from considering the loss of their own future self; clients must imagine what will happen after their own death – what they will no longer be able to or have the opportunity to experience in the future and how their family and loved ones will be impacted – which can inevitably present them with some (or many) unclear resolutions.
The grief one may experience from the idea that their future self no longer exists can be described as ‘ambiguous loss’; a concept based on a theory of grief developed by Pauline Boss, a Family Social Scientist and Family Therapist, which is used to describe the feelings that can arise not just from actual losses that may be experienced at any time throughout one’s life, but also from the social transitions that often result from traumatic events.
For example, a 55-year-old client had once dreamed of dancing at their grandchild’s wedding. When they are asked to imagine themselves dead by age 65 – there are several levels of grief that the client experiences as they wrestle with this question. Even though they are told that they can make the most of the next 5 to 10 years, and there is no actual loss experienced, sharp feelings of ambiguous loss can still result from the concept of the client’s future death.
As while the client feels extreme distress about the idea of never being able to experience their grandchild’s wedding, they may also suddenly realize many of the other things they want to do that simply cannot happen after they are gone in 10 years (e.g., weddings, anniversaries, birthdays, graduations, a second career). Additionally, they may experience dread and fear from the realization that, as is the case with most healthy people, they simply don’t know when they will die but that the imagined fate of their future self will eventually come true (and might even happen a lot sooner than they imagined).
However, this exercise isn’t necessarily limited to eliciting painful emotions. Instead of (or maybe even in addition to) experiencing grief and ambiguous loss, some clients may also experience clarity and joy when considering Kinder’s 2nd Life Planning question. Laura Carstensen, the director of the Stanford Center on Longevity and a leading researcher on wellbeing and aging, has documented that many people tend to report feeling happier as they get older. Furthermore, a CDC study examining serious psychological distress among American adults between 2009 – 2013 indicated that the adults in their study who were 65 years or older reported having serious psychological distress less frequently than any other age group.
One explanation could be that older individuals, who may recognize more clearly than younger people that their life is finite, are more adept at living in the present, which can bring greater focus and clarity to what’s most important to their lives. And when we have more clarity and focus around our priorities, along with the understanding that our time is limited, our mindsets are more confined to the present with a tendency to focus our energies on experiencing more joy and wellbeing, finding the mental, physical, and emotional wherewithal and motivation necessary to carry out the plans needed to achieve our goals successfully.
Furthermore, it is essential to accept that both reactions – grief and loss, as well as clarity and joy – are normal and that neither is ‘bad’ or ‘wrong’. As the 13th-century Persian poet Rumi suggests in his poem “The Guest House”, emotions are like visiting house guests; even though some may be unexpected and some are more pleasant than others, all should be invited and cordially entertained, because while all emotions are transient and will eventually leave, each has a valuable message and is worthy of gratitude.
The Guest House
This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.
Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.
Neither advisors nor clients need to be afraid of any emotions that arise; no matter how difficult or unpleasant they can be, they are all natural and a normal part of what makes us human.
After The Death Of The Future Self, Advisors Can Help Clients Address Priorities And Behavior Gaps
The aim of George Kinder’s second Life Planning question is to limit the client’s ability to put anything off by taking away their ability to delegate to their future self – because their future self is now dead. They are pushing a sense of urgency on the client; whatever the client wants to do, they have to do it now.
Importantly, this urgency helps the client develop clarity around what their immediate priorities are – in their dream of freedom they may have discussed changing jobs, taking up new hobbies, traveling, or spending more (or less) time with friends and family. But now, with only a limited number of years left, not all of these things may still be possible, and the client may discover that some are not as important as they originally thought. When the timeline is shortened, priorities will shift.
When advisors take the time to lay the groundwork established by the first ‘dream of freedom’ question, they set the stage for the second question, where the new time constraint set on the client can reveal how the way they prioritize goals changes. Which is valuable for the advisor, as it can offer insight into what the client truly wants for more joy and fulfillment.
Perhaps spending time with their grandkids is more important than staying at a job that they do not love, especially when the client knows they only have so much time left. Essentially, no one can manage to do everything and, when their time is cut short, clients not only figure out what is most important, they ultimately have to rank those things, too.
But the line of questioning doesn’t end with ‘killing’ the client’s future self and asking their current self to identify (and rank) their most important priorities; part of the discussion encouraged by Kinder’s second Life Planning question is to address the gap between how the client currently prioritizes their goals with their list of priorities having only a few years left to live. Because it isn’t about the gap the advisor may see, it’s about the gap that the client sees and how they perceive that gap can be realistically closed.
Staying Focused On The Present With Kinder’s Second Question To Explore Clients’ Most Fundamental Life Priorities
Even though it may be easy to describe the feelings that clients commonly experience when advisors ask them the second Life Planning question (e.g., grief, loss, clarity, joy), and what needs to be done in the conversation with clients (e.g., keep clients focused on the present, encourage them to prioritize, help them identify their behavior gap), it is not always so easy to do in an actual client meeting (a process which the Registered Life Planner core training program helps advisors better understand).
Helping Clients Reconcile Their Priority Gaps
Let’s be totally honest, it can be really scary and can even feel a bit judgmental to point out to a client the gap between how they are currently living and how they say they want to live. But this is the power of this question; this is the point that must be made. And if the advisor has established the requisite trust and connection with the first Life Planning question by spending sufficient time exploring and discussing the client’s priorities, the client will be more receptive to contemplating their answers to the second question, especially when the advisor engages with complete support for and acceptance of the client, with the intent to discover, and not to judge.
Example 1: Penny Planner has been meeting with her clients, Carl and Cheryll. After inviting the couple into her office and catching up with them a bit, Penny begins the discussion by asking them George Kinder’s first Life Planning question (outlined in the previous article discussing Question 1).
The conversation between Penny and her clients picks back up at the point where Penny has just finished reviewing Carl and Cheryll’s dreams of freedom, summarizing how they would most enjoy their retirement years, and everyone is in agreement.
(Note: Even though this conversation is broken across multiple blog articles, it is important to note that all 3 of the Kinder Life Planning questions are designed to be asked in a single meeting. Additionally, Penny had sent an email to the client prior to the meeting, detailing all 3 of the Life Planning questions that she would be asking the couple to let them know this conversation would be coming.)
Penny: Okay. Now that we’ve discussed the first question, here comes the next question. Carl, this time I’ll start with you. Imagine you have visited the doctor who tells you that you have only 5 to 10 years left to live. The good part is that you won’t ever feel sick – you will remain as healthy as you are today for at least 5 years. The bad news is that you will have no advance notice of when you will die. What will you do in the time you have remaining to live? Will you change your life and how you will do it?
Carl: [beginning to cry and pausing for a moment to compose himself] I’m not sure why I’m getting so emotional; I was prepared to answer this question, and I didn’t cry when I was writing this stuff down at home.
Advisors may notice that clients can get emotional when considering this question, more than the client might have expected. This may be in part from sharing their answers with someone else out loud, and also in part from the new clarity that can result from discussing their dream of freedom in more detail. Either way, more emotion than is expected is very normal and totally okay.
Penny: [warmly and compassionately] Emotions can give us useful information, which is why this is such a powerful exercise. What you’re feeling is very normal and totally okay. Would you like to share what’s coming up for you?
Penny has chosen to use a swing question – an invitation to share information over a command to demonstrate or underscore the trust and intimacy of the relationship.
Carl: I am not trying to get out of your question, I’m just not sure what to say. I feel a few things. As far as what I want to do with my remaining time… it would be to spend time with my wife. I want my time to be spent with Cheryll and my kids in a more direct way.
Penny: Tell me more about what you mean by spending time together in a “more direct way.”
Carl: Well, right now, we see the kids all the time. I see my wife every day. But I don’t do anything in particular to make that time special. If I’m going to be gone in five years, I want to make sure that I do everything I can to create a lifetime of memories for them to draw on.
Penny: Give me one example of what you mean by “making that time special.” Let’s focus on the time you spend with Cheryll – what would you do to make time you spend with her special?
Carl: I know Cheryll loves this one restaurant where I asked her to marry me. It’s not even the same restaurant anymore; it used to be Italian, and then it changed owners, and now it’s Indian. We normally only go there on our anniversary. While that’s nice and all, knowing that I only have five years left, I would want to take her there at least every month. I want to celebrate with her all the anniversaries that we’re going to miss out on after I die, if I will be gone in five years.
Cheryll: [crying] Carl…I don’t even know what to say…
Penny: This is really special, Carl. If you don’t mind, I’d like to summarize what I’m hearing.
Penny’s request to take a break here is strategic. While she does have a lot of information that she can summarize, perhaps more important is to respect that emotions, including her own, are running very high. And because Penny wants to lead a productive meeting, she wants to give Carl and Cheryll a moment to both catch their breath from the discussion, which is tapping into extremely personal and powerful feelings. She herself also needs a moment to compose herself, as she is very moved and touched by her client’s obvious love and regard for each other. This momentary pause can help prevent the conversation from becoming so emotional that neither Cheryll nor Carl (and Penny) would be able continue talking about even more potentially emotional ideas.
Carl: Sure, yes. Please do.
Penny: [taking a minute to compose herself and review her notes] Carl, I’m hearing you say that you want to be more mindful about how you want to spend time with Cheryll, and that you want to engage in special activities with her that will make it clear to her why you want to do these things and why they are important to you. Is that right?
Carl: Yes, that’s right. It’s important to me to let my family know more often why I want to do the things I do.
Penny: Tell me Carl – and this may seem obvious, but I want to ask so that I am sure – why does telling people the ‘why’ behind your behavior matter so much to you now?
By asking Carl, “Why is this important now?”, Penny is inviting Carl to explore the differences between what he has been doing and what he thinks he might actually want to do. Penny is using exploratory questions to examine this gap by asking questions about behavior and time.
Carl: I just haven’t done it. It’s not that I take seeing my kids and my wife for granted, I just don’t prioritize our time together as highly as I want to. I just let being with them casually happen around me. I’m really not as present with them as I want to be.
Penny: Unpack that for me a bit more, Carl. This is really big stuff, and I want to ensure I understand. Tell me how you see yourself now, and how you want to be different.
Penny is directly addressing the gap by asking Carl to weigh in on it. She wants to know what Carl’s thoughts and feelings are about the gap as he sees it. If Penny had started talking about the gap before Carl identified it himself in his own words, she may have caused Carl to feel judged.
Carl: Well, it would be more of things like I described about taking Cheryll to dinner. I want to be more deliberate about the experiences we have. I want to plan stuff more often, be more engaged and action oriented. I don’t want to just react to what happens as they come up….
In the exchange presented above, Penny has done some noteworthy things. First, she asked Carl exploratory questions, asking Carl to describe and explain his perceptions, before broaching the gap Carl has been alluding to. Second, Penny stops to reflect and repeat back what she hears, which is particularly important before asking Carl more directly to talk about the gap.
Moreover, as Carl noted, he has never verbalized these priorities to anyone; new thoughts and emotions are coming up in ways that he hasn’t experienced before. Penny is a good leader and practiced facilitator; by using exploratory questions and repeating back what she hears, she is giving Carl a chance to listen to how she perceives what he’s just said. This also gives him a chance to reflect on the conversation and make better sense of the importance of what he’s said.
Penny is zeroing in on Carl’s most fundamental life priorities, getting beyond a single behavior (e.g., taking my wife to dinner) to broader emotional goals (e.g., being present with my family and making a point of telling them why the moment matters). And to do this, Penny is mostly just asking questions and making summary statements about what she has heard. At no point in time is Penny telling Carl anything new; she is not trying to analyze what Carl is trying to say or to give any priority to his comments. She is simply discovering Carl’s thoughts and priorities.
When Penny finally does ask Carl to address the gap, she phrases it by asking Carl to tell her how he sees himself now and how he wants to be different. Importantly, she asked Carl to explain how he identifies with the gap, very different from a more judgmental position of pointing out that there is a gap and questioning why he hasn’t addressed it yet.
A few other examples of how advisors can address gaps during conversations with clients are listed below:
- Explain to me the differences between what you just described and how you believe you are currently behaving.
- Having shared more of your priorities, how do you see these priorities in the current way you live?
- Having gained more insight into what matters to you, do you think this has relevance to the work we do together or to your financial plan?
- Knowing what you know now, how do you want this to impact your daily life moving forward?
Keeping The Discussion On Track When Powerful Emotions Come Up
After Penny and Carl tackle a few more of Carl’s goals, Penny moves on to Cheryll. Penny expects that more heavy emotions like grief and loss may arise as she goes through the discussion with Cheryll, and she understands that the trick to leading a good discussion of the second Life Planning question is to understand how her client’s emotions can give her clues to the significance of her goals.
At the same time, though, Penny needs to be careful about letting Cheryll get so emotionally overwhelmed that she can no longer move the conversation forward. Accordingly, Penny is prepared to let Cheryll express her emotions and to acknowledge them, but at the same time, to keep the meeting moving forward.
Penny: Cheryll, I want to ask you the same question that I just asked Carl. Imagine you have visited the doctor who tells you that you have only 5 to 10 years left to live. The good part is that you won’t ever feel sick (you will remain as healthy as you are today for at least 5 years). The bad news is that you will have no notice of the moment of death. What will you do in the time you have remaining to live? Will you change your life and how you will do it?
Cheryll: Well, after Carl’s comments, there are so many things are coming up for me, even beyond what I had written down.
Penny: That’s amazing, but it’s also totally normal. I’m grateful that we have had this time to talk about these things. Let’s start with what you’ve written down.
Cheryll: Okay, well, the first thing I had on my list was that I would make two trips each year with my family, not just one.
Penny: Tell me more about what these trips mean to you, Cheryll. What is the ‘why’ behind them for you?
Cheryll: It’s just that, with less time, I guess I feel similar to how Carl described feeling. If I can’t have more time, I want to stack the deck with the time that I do have left. I need to know I left my grandkids with as many memories of me and our family as possible.
Penny: You said you were feeling similar to what Carl might have felt… I wonder what that means to you, as far as how you are thinking and feeling…
By framing her ‘question’ by stating, “I wonder…” Penny is using an implied question to invite Cheryll to describe her emotions. This is a good way to gently invite sensitive information and demonstrate the closeness of a relationship.
Cheryll: It sounds silly and maybe I’m being a bit too emotional, but I think I would like to write cards to my grandkids in advance, for certain birthdays or milestones that I would miss with them after I’m gone.
Cheryll is expressing some anticipatory grief. She is grieving the loss of events that haven’t happened. This is a common thing that clients do. Anticipatory grief is normal; in Cheryll’s situation, it can be useful to uncover new behaviors or solutions Cheryll can use to address her gap. She had originally thought about planning vacations, but now she is also thinking about writing cards; she is brainstorming her own solutions to make her time more joyous and valuable.
Penny: I know you said ‘silly’, Cheryll, but I totally understand and I don’t think it’s silly at all. Having a shorter timeline can bring great clarity for how we want to be and what we want to do, but it doesn’t always come without feeling some loss and grief over what could have been. As I told Carl, our emotions can give us information. What does this mean for your priorities for today?
It doesn’t really matter how Cheryll answers; the main point is that Penny responded to the grief with acceptance while keeping her conversation with Cheryll moving forward and focused on the present. Grief and loss are powerful emotions, and now Cheryll is going to explain what those difficult emotions mean to the work that she and Penny are doing.
Furthermore, the process of asking Carl and Cheryll about their priorities and learning more about how they see their gaps is emotionally intense for everyone involved. There are many emotions and many new realizations. Penny will serve her clients best by summarizing a lot of what they say, to give her clients breathing room to deal with their emotions and reflect on the conversation without losing the focus on the high points and important priorities that may apply to the plan.
Closing The Discussion By Grounding Back To The Financial Plan
Before closing out the discussion of the second Life Planning question, a recap of the revelations, brainstormed ideas, and emotions can be a powerful way to help clients put everything in perspective and see how these things relate back to their financial plan. Having so many epiphanies and insights around deeply significant life priorities can be an awesome gift for clients. It also gives the advisor an opportunity to keep these new ideas from falling into the ether and to connect them back to their clients’ financial/life plans.
Penny: Thank you both for answering these last two questions so thoughtfully. It’s really hard work. Before we move on to the last question, I want to take a moment for us to connect what we’ve learned here so far back to our work together in developing your financial plan.
The priorities we have identified so far are our main goals. Now, let’s summarize these priorities down in writing, so we can have a shared account of these important goals that we’ll be working toward.
When wrapping up the conversation around the second Life Planning question, the main objective is not so much about choosing which goals are most important to the client (which was the focus earlier in the discussion of question 2); instead, it’s more crucial to understand how the goals will be integrated into the plan and to identify how the relationship that exists between the financial planner and the client will support implementation. This is a way of grounding the discussion back to the financial plan, to give the client some framework of momentum.
In traditional Registered Life Planner training, the advisor is taught to keep notes and to use the information to help clients develop what is known as a ‘Torch Statement’, which is a tool that describes the client’s ideal life in the future, however that may emerge for the client (e.g., calm, being around family, peaceful, debt-free). The Torch Statement is used to help ground the client to their vision of how their future self would feel. This can be a powerful exercise and is used by Registered Life Planners as a way to connect all of the emotional work and energy that is brought out by the Life Planning questions back into a sensible plan that helps clients follow up on realizing that vision.
Regardless of whether a financial advisor decides to pursue formal Registered Life Planner training or to use only principles from the Life Planning process, the key point is that grounding the emotional work back into a more formalized plan is critically important; whether it be to a statement of purpose, a financial plan, or a Life Planning Torch Statement.
While George Kinder’s first Life Planning question asks clients to ‘dream of freedom’, the second question forces them to re-work their answers with a restricted timeline. And unlike the first question (which can be fun, and which most clients often enjoy), the second question often elicits answers and insights that can be profound and emotionally painful. It is a powerful exercise and, like other similar exercises (e.g., the measuring tape exercise developed by Brad and Ted Klontz), it can be worthwhile for advisors to do this exercise themselves before trying it with clients, as a way to help them better prepare for the ways their clients may respond and react to the questions.
Furthermore, knowing how to ask good follow-up questions can help advisors better understand the context around the client's goals and priorities by sensitively exploring what the client says. Preparing a few follow-up questions in advance of the client meeting is an important step before asking clients to address the gap between their current priorities and those that they may have given only a short time left to live.
Ultimately, by helping clients work their way through these challenging discussions to gain clarity around how their priority gaps will be reconciled, and co-creating a shared vision of how this reconciliation will be integrated into their financial plans, advisors can cultivate a deeper sense of trust and confidence with clients, which strengthens the relationship throughout the process!