In initial discovery meetings, financial advisors face the challenge of eliciting specific goals from new clients – a crucial step for crafting a comprehensive financial plan. Asking direct queries may elicit vague responses like "I want to be on track for retirement", which tends to lack the detail needed to plan effectively and spark the client's motivation to actually accomplish those goals. Moreover, probing into a client's financial aspirations might inadvertently lead to negative emotions if past failures are brought to light, potentially eliciting feelings like anxiety, guilt, and shame that could ultimately hinder the client's ability to discuss their goals openly.
If a client struggles to discuss their goals, one way for a financial advisor to redirect the conversation in a more productive direction could be to reframe the question with a positive focus; rather than being reminded of their previous emotional baggage around money, the advisor encourages the client to imagine a more hopeful financial future. For example, they can ask the client: "Imagine you had a magic wand that could let you change anything about your current financial situation – what would you change, and why?"
Techniques like the 'Magic Wand' question are effective because they are solution-focused; they emphasize envisioning positive changes rather than recalling the anxiety or frustration that the client may be experiencing because of the issue. This approach encourages the client to separate their goal from any emotional pain associated with that goal, helping them to focus on the actions they are able to take without the emotional burden of past setbacks. Not only can Magic Wand questions be used as an effective way to recover a conversation veering into negative emotional territory by shifting the mood more positively, but they can also be used to proactively initiate positive brainstorming sessions about financial goals and needs. And for client couples, the Magic Wand question is a gentle way to help partners reveal their individual financial concerns with each other by keeping the conversation light-hearted and solution-focused, steering clear of blame and other negative emotions.
The key point is that in a society where financial status often reflects on personal character, financial difficulties can provoke feelings of guilt and shame – and it may be easy for people to focus on those negative feelings instead of actionable improvements. For financial advisors, having tools like the 'Magic Wand' question can be invaluable for steering clients away from the emotional turmoil of their current financial issues and towards clear, solution-focused strategies for achieving their goals!
Negative Feelings Make Discussing Financial Needs And Goals Difficult In Discovery Meetings
For financial advisors, engaging in discussions about goals and needs is a staple of the initial discovery meeting with clients. While these conversations are part of a routine process, their complexity should not be underestimated – they can be very difficult conversations.
For example, many advisors might ask straightforward questions such as the following:
- What is your primary financial goal?
- Are there financial changes you want to implement?
- What does retirement look like for you?
- Can you describe your current financial ecosystem?
- Can you share a bit about education plans for your children?
In response to these initial questions, advisors often receive generic responses: vague aspirations for retirement and education funding, general desires to save more and/or spend less, a need for security, and mention of assets like 401(k) plan accounts.
While there's nothing inherently wrong with these questions or the responses they elicit, they often fall short of generating enthusiasm and fostering the internal motivation necessary for clients to set and accomplish their financial goals. Moreover, such questions can inadvertently evoke negative emotions, which may pose an additional barrier to meaningful discussions about financial goals and change.
For advisors seeking strategies to help them build internal momentum in clients and prospects who are struggling with change, the previous blog article, Discovery Meeting Framework: 6 Questions To Help Prospects Who Are Resistant To Change, discusses targeted questions that can effectively engage and assist those who may have doubts about the value of engaging with an advisor and their own ability to take on the responsibility of following a financial plan.
Consider the following situation below and see how a good, kind-hearted, and open conversation can quickly elicit negative emotions:
Example: Andi is a financial advisor who is having a discovery meeting with a new client, Caitlin. While their relationship began with an initial screening call and an introductory prospect call (when Caitlin decided to move forward as a client), the discovery meeting will be the first in-person meeting for them.
While Andi approaches the meeting with confidence and readiness, Caitlin harbors a mix of emotions. Despite her eagerness to begin, she carries a sense of vulnerability and quiet anxiety about the new experience of working with a financial planner. While Caitlin had previously worked with a CPA, she is navigating the unfamiliar territory of comprehensive financial planning for the first time, bringing both her hopes and her emotionally charged financial 'baggage' to the table.
Their initial conversation proceeds as follows:
Andi: Hi! Caitlin! It's nice to finally meet you in person!
Caitlin: It's nice to meet you too, Andi. I've been looking forward to this.
Andi: [with a warm smile] I'm all for diving straight in, so let's get started! I saw that you got the agenda I sent – thanks for confirming that. Before we jump into the details, tell me if there's anything pressing on your mind that we need to start with. [Note how Andi uses a command for information here, rather than a question, as an effective way to elicit any high-priority topics that Caitlin wants to discuss]
Caitlin: Actually, no. I appreciated the agenda; it was thorough and really helped me focus my thoughts for today.
Andi: Great. Let's get started then. I remember from our call that being on track toward retirement is a priority for you. I'd love to delve deeper into that – I'm curious to know what kind of financial changes you're considering to help you get there?
Caitlin: Are we talking about strategies like saving more or spending less?
Andi: Exactly. I'm interested in what you've tried before, what's been successful, and what hasn't. [This is a great example of an effective follow-up question]
Caitlin: [sighing in frustration] Well, that's just it, isn't it? I've attempted so many budgets, automatic savings – you name it. But here I am, still feeling stuck. That's why I'm here; I need to figure out what I'm missing.
Despite Andi's adept use of questioning techniques, the conversation with Caitlin has veered into emotionally negative territory. This isn't a reflection on Andi's skills; rather, it's a testament to the complex emotional baggage – stress, anxiety, and perhaps shame – that Caitlin (and many prospects and clients) carries regarding her financial history. Andi is now faced with the challenge of navigating these emotions and keeping the conversation moving in a productive direction.
Negative emotions can have a profound impact on behavior. Under stress, people may confront their issues head-on, but too much stress can be paralyzing, as described by the Yerkes-Dodson law, which models the relationship between stress and performance. According to the model, some level of stress can enhance performance, but when stress levels become too high, performance can suffer. And when the external stimuli that induce stress are internalized and create anxiety, the individual becomes uncertain about their ability to deal with the issue at hand. anxiety, the individual becomes uncertain about their ability to deal with the issue at hand.
As a result, anxiety can often lead to avoidance. For Caitlin, in the example above, anxiety can make it difficult for her to address her goals for retirement, and she may subconsciously prefer to avoid it altogether. Which puts both Andi and Caitlin in an uncomfortable position when it comes time to create a retirement plan.
In addition to stress and anxiety, shame and guilt can also be difficult emotions to process when discussing goals. In her book Daring Greatly, Brené Brown discusses the difference between shame and guilt:
The majority of shame researchers and clinicians agree that the difference between shame and guilt is best understood as the difference between "I am bad" and "I did something bad."
Guilt = I did something bad.
Shame = I am bad.
In other words, shame and guilt both impact self-perception and actions; whereas a person experiencing shame internalizes the feeling of being flawed, guilt comes with recognizing a fault in behavior. In the conversation above, it's unclear whether Caitlin feels guilt or shame, but either emotion can hinder her from fully engaging with Andi and openly discussing her financial goals. Caitlin, from this point forward (and it is still very early in the conversation!), may start to shut down. And if Caitlin withdraws, the conversation may lose the productivity and insight both Andi and Caitlin had hoped for.
To redirect the conversation positively, Andi has options beyond expressing sympathy or suggesting a reschedule (which, although well-meaning, can backfire on her). By recognizing the shift in Caitlin's tone, Andi can employ open-ended, solution-oriented questions to re-engage Caitlin. This approach can help advisors pivot discussions that feel off track back into a more positive and forward-looking direction, encouraging clients to participate more actively in shaping their financial future.
Using Magic Wand Questions To Redirect When Things Are Negative
In the face of the emotional challenges that advisors might experience during a discovery meeting, there are a variety of tools at their disposal to help redirect the conversation toward a more constructive and positive outcome. One particularly effective technique is the 'magic wand' question. The magic wand question is a creative exercise that can help clients move beyond their current concerns (often laden with emotional negativity!) and imagine a more hopeful financial future without the constraints of their past experiences.
While there are variations to the magic wand question, the core idea remains the same. How advisors choose to use it will largely depend on their preferred communication styles, but 2 basic examples are as follows where the advisor owns the wand in one example, and the client owns the wand in the other:
- When The Advisor Owns The Magic Wand: "Imagine I have a magic wand. With it, you can have your ideal ______. What does that look like for you?"
- When The Client Owns The Magic Wand: "Let's pretend for a moment that you own a magic wand. With it, you can have your ideal _______. What does that look like for you?"
The power of the magic wand question lies in the nature of the answer it elicits – one that is inherently positive. This positivity is most clearly seen in contrast with responses that are more negatively focused. Consider the 3 questions below and their potential responses. Each question probes into the client's ideal financial situation, but the tone of the question being asked – whether it be negative, positive, or neutral – plays a significant role in shaping the nature of the response and how the client might feel after they answer.
- Question With A Neutral Focus: What is your highest financial priority right now as it pertains to your financial situation and why?
Potential Response: My debt is priority number one. And why? Because it weighs me down. It's always there. No matter what good financial things I do, it's still just there and it eats away at me.
- Question With A Negative Focus: What's the worst thing about your current financial situation and why?
Potential Response: My debt; it's so large. I feel trapped by my debt. I can never get ahead, let alone rest at night. I can feel it accumulated.
- Question With A Positive Focus – the Magic Wand: If you had a magic wand and could wave it to change one thing about your current financial situation, what would you change and why?
Potential Response: All my debt would be eliminated. And why? Because I would have no more worries! If the debt were just gone, I could really relax.
The magic wand question is designed to steer conversations toward solutions and inherently encourages a positive response. This is like the difference between asking someone, "Why haven't you updated your beneficiaries yet?" – which might lead to a litany of justifications for the delay (which can often reinforce inaction) – versus asking them, "Why is updating your beneficiaries still important to you?" The latter approach, which focuses on the personal importance of the task instead of the reasons for the delay, tends to raise internal motivation to get the task done.
Given their positive focus, magic wand questions are aligned with solution-focused techniques, such as the 'Miracle' question (which asks individuals to describe specific changes and real-world indicators they would notice if an overnight miracle were to solve their most pressing problem) or George Kinder's Dream of Freedom question (which invites individuals to imagine how they would live their lives if t4hey had complete financial security).
These open-ended solution-focused questions are all asked in a manner that prompts respondents to envision positive actions or changes by deliberately steering the conversation toward potential solutions and opportunities instead of dwelling on the problem or underlying causes of the current issue. They are designed to spark positive, constructive brainstorming, and they work very well!
Why Magic Wand Questions Are Especially Effective With Couple Clients
What makes the 'magic wand' question stand out among other solution-focused techniques, though, is its simplicity and effectiveness, particularly when working with couples. It offers a straightforward tool that can quickly shift the dynamic of a conversation from negative to positive.
For example, in the earlier scenario with Caitlin and Andi, Caitlin's expression of negative emotions created a tense and unproductive atmosphere. If Andi had introduced the magic wand question, it could have offered a lifeline for Caitlin by helping her transition out of her emotional downturn and focus on positive outcomes instead.
Now consider Caitlin accompanied by her partner, Jaime, in a meeting with Andi. If Caitlin had been the primary communicator up to this point, her openness about her financial stress and other negative emotions would not only reveal vulnerabilities to Andi but also to her partner, Jaime. This could lead to a delicate situation, especially if Jaime were unaware of Caitlin's financial concerns.
In the best-case scenario, Jaime already knows about Caitlin's feelings and is supportive. In the worst case, Jaime doesn't know how Caitlin has been struggling, leading to an uncomfortable and potentially charged moment in Andi's office. This is where the magic wand question can work its 'magic'. By inviting both Caitlin and Jaime to envision a hypothetical reality where their issues are immediately resolved, the question offers a non-judgmental space for discussion.
It gives them a safe space to examine their problems by exploring possible solutions and what could be rather than what has gone wrong. This approach detaches the couple from the immediate emotional weight of their current reality, making it easier not only for couples themselves to openly discuss issues and work together toward a resolution but also for advisors who are navigating complex emotional dynamics with their clients.
The magic wand question can help a couple move toward a solution instead of labeling a problem (and can even devolve into assigning blame). Labeling problems can be particularly sensitive, as it can be easy to dwell on the problem itself and invoke deeply held values and morals. And when it comes to finances, it is common for many to have different values and morals that conflict with others' viewpoints.
For many, including Caitlin, acknowledging financial challenges in front of their partner can be very hard. Admitting to such challenges can often feel like self-criticism, framing past behavior as mistakes or even flaws in character.
In contrast, using magic wand questions avoids placing blame. It allows for an open and truthful dialogue without the potential accusatory undertones that can come with labeling problems. It facilitates a safe environment for couples to talk about stressful and uncomfortable topics, allowing for the safe exploration of constructive ideas and candid, productive conversations.
3 Ways To Use A Magic Wand Question In Discovery
There are 3 ways to use magic wand questions in discovery meetings: 1) They can be used as recovery questions to realign conversations derailed by negative feelings back to a more constructive path; 2) they can be used to set a positive tone for brainstorming, encouraging creative and optimistic thinking about financial goals; and 3) they can also be used to facilitate financial discussions between couples, helping them explore their needs and goals openly and collaboratively, without the need for blame or labeling.
The first way to use a magic wand question during a discovery meeting is as a recovery tool when conversations become charged with negative emotions. Advisors typically have a preferred set of questions to ask in discovery meetings, which often ask clients to contemplate issues they are struggling with or challenged by. Yet, as illustrated in our ongoing example, such questions can be stressful and can even lead clients down a path of negative emotions. But using the magic wand question can redirect the client towards positivity and salvage the conversation.
In the case of Caitlin and Andi, Andi might detect Caitlin's sense of defeat and frustration when she says, "Well, that's just it! I've tried so many different things, but here I am, still feeling stuck." This is a clear indication that Caitlin is feeling some negative emotions. While an advisor may instinctively want to offer sympathy or empathy, a more effective approach would be to briefly label the emotion by simply acknowledging the emotion that is being expressed. Labeling emotions in such a manner demonstrates empathy, active listening, and understanding while acknowledging the client's feelings without dwelling on them.
It also sets the stage for pivoting the conversation with a magic wand question, steering the dialogue back to a more positive and productive track. Consider how Andi shifts the tone of the earlier conversation using the magic wand question in the following dialogue:
Andi: Caitlin, I can sense some frustration, and I appreciate your openness. If it's okay with you, I'd like to ask you another question.
Caitlin: Yes, frustration is the right word! That's exactly how I feel. Go ahead, ask away.
Andi: Let's try a thought experiment. Imagine that I have given you a magic wand that would let you change one thing about your current financial situation. What would you change?
Caitlin: I'd create a budget that I could stick to for more than 6 months – one that doesn't feel like a budget. Since we're talking about magic here [Caitlin says with a smile], I might as well aim for exactly what I want!
In the above exchange, Caitlin's focus hasn't left the priority of a workable budget. Yet the tone has shifted from frustrated exasperation to one that is more positive and optimistic. Her comments are no longer about her and her failed attempts at budgeting but, instead, the belief that having and sustaining a budget is possible! If advisors notice their clients becoming pessimistic or frustrated with their plans or goals, they can try to redirect the tone by focusing the conversation on positive outcomes and potential solutions.
Using a magic wand question to start the conversation can be a proactive strategy to initiate brainstorming ideas. Unlike some of the other more complex solution-focused questions, such as the 'Miracle' question or George Kinder's 'Dream of Freedom' question, magic wand questions are very simple to use.
The magic wand question can be used to open a conversation about financial goals or financial needs. Consider the following conversation between Andi and Caitlin:
Andi: Hi Caitlin, it's great to finally meet you face-to-face!
Caitlin: Yeah, happy to be here in person.
Andi: Discovery meetings are my absolute favorite. I'm really excited to dive into our chat. Before we begin, though, please tell me what's top of mind for you right now.
Caitlin: Oh, I don't know. I'm a little nervous, to be honest. I've never done anything like this before. But go ahead, I'm ready.
Andi: It's completely normal to feel a bit nervous, especially since this is all still new to you, and I'm still a new face. Let's kick things off with an easy question. Imagine I gave you a magic wand that would let you change one thing about your current financial situation today. What would it be and why?
Because Caitlin was brave enough to offer up that she was a bit nervous, Andi took a moment to normalize her anxiety by acknowledging her feelings and situation ("It's completely normal to feel this way, especially when everything is new…") before asking the magic wand question.
Magic wand questions are especially effective to use when people are nervous; they help to keep the tone of the conversation positive, optimistic, and open-ended. Which is important, because when people are feeling nervous, anxious, or insecure, it can sometimes be easy for their emotions to shift negatively.
Additionally, magic wand questions encourage creative thinking and imaginative answers; this helps alleviate anxiety about answering more reality-based questions, which can make clients uneasy when they're not sure about the 'right' answers – especially financial ones. Initiating the conversation with a magic wand question can help advisors set a constructive tone for initial client meetings while gently nudging their clients to focus on their goals and behaviors with enthusiasm and optimism!
Working With Couples
As noted earlier, magic wand questions are particularly effective for advisors working with couples. The fear of revealing financial concerns and pain points can be daunting and can lead to some very emotionally charged discussions. And when meeting with couples, discussing financial concerns and worries can often devolve into a blame game.
The magic wand question helps to keep the conversation light and solution-focused, steering clear of blame and other negative emotions. Advisors can ask each partner the magic wand question individually. For instance, in the ongoing scenarios presented earlier, if Andi were meeting with Caitlin and her partner Jaime, she might start with a magic wand question for Caitlin and then follow up with a similar question for Jaime. Allowing each partner to answer the same question in this manner can be insightful and can even bring disagreements or differences into the open in a non-confrontational way.
Consider the following dialogue:
Andi: It's fantastic to have both of you here! I usually like to start these discovery meetings with a question that's a bit open-ended, and I'd love for each of you to answer on your own. Would you be willing to give that a try?
Caitlin/Jaime: [together] Sure, sounds good.
Andi: Great. Jaime, let's start with you first. Imagine this: You have a magic wand that can change one thing about your current financial situation. What would you change and why?
Jaime: Just one thing? Hmm. Well, I'd make all of my debt disappear. The thought of being debt-free just makes me feel so much more relaxed.
Andi: Thank you; I appreciate your honesty, Jaime. I've got a few follow-up questions for you, but let's hold on to those for a moment.
Caitlin, now it's your turn. Imagine that you also have a magic wand. What's the one thing about your current financial situation you'd change, and why?
Caitlin: I'd have a budget that I could fall in love with! It would help me stay on track and feel so natural that it wouldn't even feel like a budget. I want to feel in charge of my money.
Andi: Being in control is important. Share more about what that looks like for you and then we’ll follow up with Jaime…
In the exchange above, Andi's approach is not about diagnosing her client's issues or assigning blame. While it's evident to Andi that Caitlin and Jaimie have different financial priorities, it doesn't necessarily mean their goals are incompatible. By focusing on solutions instead of problems, Andi can guide the couple toward a collaborative solution-seeking mindset by facilitating a discussion that lets each person articulate their own vision of their unique priorities, setting the stage for a constructive brainstorming session. This approach is much more productive than if the couple were to become entangled in an unpleasant blame game, which could escalate tension and hinder progress.
While discovery meetings can provide a wealth of data about new clients, it's important to recognize that they can also bring up uncomfortable feelings and difficult emotions. Enter the magic wand question – a quick, simple tool that advisors can use to shift moments of discomfort into opportunities for positive engagement.
Whether used as a response to alleviate rising tension or as a proactive nudge into a collaborative brainstorming session, these questions can be remarkably potent, and their simplicity and effectiveness make them an especially effective tool when working with couples. Ultimately, magic wand questions can be a valuable tool for advisors to help clients visualize new perspectives and solutions through a positive framework!