Advisors hear them all the time: empty promises for change. And it is a struggle. It is a struggle for the client because they know they want to change and are paying their financial advisor to help them with that change. Yet, they do not move forward. It is also a struggle for the advisor because it is confusing and uncomfortable to ‘fight’ with a client about making a change when the client themselves was the one who said they wanted to implement the change… and now they just want to argue about seeing it through!
Yet, what the financial advisor and client are both often oblivious to is how change happens. And this is no one’s fault – no one teaches the Transtheoretical Model (TTM) of change except for psychology professors (although even 3rd graders would benefit from learning about how to change – advocating for a better understanding of the change process would create a more change-friendly world!). But without understanding how change happens, it will be challenging to work with clients and figure out how to make it happen.
In the Transtheoretical Model (TTM), Pre-Contemplation is the first stage of the change process. In this stage, clients might not be aware that change is important, or more likely, they have identified the change and might even be able to recite a ‘why’ or two (e.g., retirement sounds fun… someday), but they still have no intention to see this change through (e.g., I have no intention to actually stop going out for coffee or to set up a savings plan). In other words, Pre-Contemplators not only don’t change… they aren’t even really thinking about what it would take to do it.
The central issue in the Pre-Contemplation stage is that clients often get stuck and resist change, even when they acknowledge they should change. Which can be confusing (and frustrating!) to the financial advisor after having just heard the client claim they want to implement changes to reach their goals, followed by the client actively defending their current behavior instead of working to implement the change!
So what should financial advisors do? Arguing with the client generally won’t help. And many times, more client education won’t help either. Enter James and Janice Prochaska, the authors of Changing to Thrive, who have written about what people need at each stage of the change process. Individuals in the Pre-Contemplation stage often feel ambivalent and are probably feeling somewhat disheartened by earlier attempts to change. This can result in anxiety over trying again, and defensiveness of current behavior to avoid having to try again.
The Prochaskas suggest some strategies that advisors can use to help clients, such as coming up with positive reasons for change (instead of the negative outcomes from not implementing the change), educating not on the ‘what’ but on the ‘how’ (because clients often don’t know what exactly they need to do), and spending time addressing clients’ deeper motivations for changing. The Prochaskas also developed worksheets to help people engage in change, which can be easily adapted to address changes that financial planning clients may need to make. These can give advisors a process-oriented strategy to address their clients’ issues, and can make having these potentially sensitive conversations with clients less intimidating.
Because the key point is that while change can be hard, it does have a process to it. If financial advisors understand the change process and what their clients are working toward, then they can implement a systematic way to discuss change with their clients. And by recognizing that action is not yet required in the Pre-Contemplation stage (instead, it is just about recognizing the importance of change and moving toward the Contemplation stage), advisors can help their clients more easily accept the changes they need to make. Change still won’t happen overnight, but that is okay. By guiding their clients through the steps of the change process, advisors will feel less confused and more empowered in their conversations with clients, and clients will be more likely to accept (and eventually take action on) the changes they need to make!
Handling Pre-Contemplation Stage Clients Who Do Not Intend to Change (Soon)
Like grief, change has stages. In the original research by James Prochaska, John Norcross, and Carlo DiClemente (and discussed in the recent brilliant book, Changing to Thrive by James and Janice Prochaska), there are six stages of change, collectively known as the Transtheoretical Model of Change (TTM).
In the first of these stages, Pre-Contemplation, individuals either do not realize that they want or need to change, or – and perhaps most common to financial planning clients – they may want to change, and know that the change is important and even necessary… but they do not intend to make that change (at least any time in the near future) and often struggle to accept that there is a need for these changes apply to them right now.
For example, smokers know smoking is unhealthy and that they should quit. Yet, even though they know quitting is good for them, they struggle to do so. The same goes for starting an exercise routine and saving for retirement. We know change is necessary and good for us, yet it is often hard to take action, now, on making those changes.
Example 1: John is your client, and he says he wants to save. He even promises to save a substantial amount of his income, because he knows that if he wants to meet his retirement goals, he must actually implement a savings plan.
During his meeting with you, John verbally emphasizes his commitment to start saving. As his advisor, you tell him that’s a great idea and important for reaching his retirement goals.
Yet, walking out of that meeting, John has mixed feelings about saving, and begins to think of what he’d have to give up in order to start saving for retirement. Overwhelmed, he decides to put off saving for now and does not want to think about how he might change his current spending habits.
While this behavior might seem like John has lied to you - he said he was committed to start saving, and then promptly put off the new saving behavior – it is really John’s deep ambivalence at play, as he struggles between wanting to do the ‘right’ thing and actually committing to a plan to do that ‘right’ thing, right now.
The beauty of Prochaska’s TTM research on the six stages of change is that it provides instruction and encourages advisors to proffer ample space and time for clients to address their ambivalence during this initial stage.
So, what is the source of ambivalence that forms in the Pre-Contemplation stage? A good way to answer that question is to consider the three key behavioral tendencies of individuals in the Pre-Contemplation stage.
The first two deal with the individual’s own perspective on whether they’re capable of the change. As in practice, these individuals are first and foremost often not sure how to change. Secondly, they may feel demoralized by past attempts they’ve made to implement the change. Often, this results in the third behavioral tendency, which is defensiveness (which is a behavior that will surely ring a bell for advisors!).
Some may ask, “But isn’t change natural? Who doesn’t know how to change?” Apparently, the answer is a lot of people. In fact, the Prochaskas go into great detail, looking at a number of studies showing that when it comes to making change, not knowing how to change is a bigger issue than motivation, willpower, genes, personality, and confidence!
In the example below, John knows that saving more equals spending less. Yet, he does not actually know how to cut spending nor from where he should make cuts – in the past, he was able to stick to some cuts for a while, but often reverted back to his old spending habits. Knowing that change is important, and knowing how to make the change to bring about long-lasting results, are two totally different things.
Example 2: John, from Example 1, is struggling with his ambivalence about saving for retirement and making changes to his current spending habits.
John knows that saving more means cutting his spending, but he just doesn’t know where or how he will make spending cuts.
He simply does not know how to take a deep dive into his finances to make changes in his budget, at least in a sustainable way that will make him feel proud or bring him any joy, versus just making him annoyed with the sacrifices he’s had to make and causing him to abandon his saving plan after just 3 months.
And one can likely see how this is very much related to the next key behavioral tendency, where people can feel demoralized with respect to the change and the confidence they have in their ability to implement it.
After all, if a person has tried to save and cut spending in the past, but then had a difficult time succeeding and ended out quitting (perhaps because they weren’t really ready to make the change yet, or didn’t put together a sustainable plan), making another attempt to start over can be tough. It can even be confusing. Perhaps they recalled how their first attempt at saving and cutting spending made their situation feel a lot worse; how likely is it that another try will be any easier? Is it magically going to work somehow this time?
The third and final key behavioral hallmark of pre-contemplation resistance to change is that those struggling with change will often feel compelled to defend their existing choices. Defensiveness is likely the most confusing behavior for a financial advisor who is helping a client make a change (that the client says they want to make). Because it may not make sense for the client who is in your office saying one thing (e.g., I want to save for retirement!) but then contradicting themselves in their next breath (e.g., I don’t want to cut my spending!)… not to mention the fact that they are paying you for advice about saving! Yet the minute you suggest they spend a little less on golf and dining out… the client may go on to say, “But I deserve those things! I need to enjoy myself! You don’t understand my stress.”
The act of defending current behavior, even when clients say they want to change, is that intention piece. They know they should change, but ‘knowing’ (unfortunately) does nothing for or toward their actual intention to carry out that change in the near future.
Moreover, misinterpreting the difference between what a client wants and what they intend to do can leave the advisor feeling hurt, betrayed, and annoyed. Being told by a client in a face-to-face meeting, “Yes! I will absolutely do X!” only to be followed by no action can be difficult for the advisor, especially if the client has behaved this way in the past.
To better understand the reason for this behavior, advisors might try to imagine how the client may be feeling. Making a commitment to something they know is important, and then not living up to that commitment, can be difficult and painful for the client, too. They know they came to change and take action, but they are stuck between wanting to implement the change and taking action on it. They may not even be aware that this is what is happening, and they certainly don’t know how to deal with this struggle.
The good news is that there are ways to help clients overcome their resistance to change in this step. If advisors can educate clients about how change works, they can empower them by guiding them toward the next stage, Contemplation. And understanding that the next stage isn’t about action (yet!) can take some of the pressure off and help the client make progress in moving forward.
Because when we are really honest about the process of change and acknowledge that the next step down the road doesn’t require us to actually make the change just yet, then there is less incentive to lie about our motivation or intention. The pressure to promise to change is off the table.
In fact, instead of making excuses, getting defensive, or just making false promises to get out the door and away from scrutiny, clients may find it much easier to acknowledge the broader process of change, which ultimately opens the door to more honest conversations.
Facilitating Honest Conversations About Resistance To Help Clients Move From Precontemplation To Contemplation
Before clients can take action on the change they want to implement, they first need to move from the Pre-Contemplation stage to the Contemplation stage. In order to do this, three essential things can help them: 1) identification of the positive reasons for making the change, 2) education about how to make the change, and 3) emotional activation to understand how the change is truly important to them.
Identifying Clients’ Positive Reasons For Change
The first step to helping clients work through their resistance to change is about increasing positivity towards change and involves a fairly simple process. All the advisor wants to do here is help clients reach a point where they have a longer list of positive reasons to change than negative reasons for not making the change.
And fortunately, identifying pros can be fun and uplifting for the client! Especially in contrast to the opposite, thinking of ways to fight the cons.
Example 3: Carol the Client owns a large holding in company stock that she is quite attached to, and is meeting with her financial advisor, Frank.
Although Frank wants Carol to diversify, they have danced this number a few times. For instance, in their last conversation, Frank made it a point to emphasize the cons of holding an overconcentrated position in Carol’s company’s stock, which went like this:
Frank: Carol, I know we have discussed this before, but I am still quite concerned about the extensive holding in your company, XYZ.
Carol: And I’ve told you, my company is doing great. I am not done riding this out. We have too many great things going on just to get out now. Diversifying now just doesn’t make sense.
Frank: In many ways, though, Carol, it is just the opposite. Waiting until we think it is the right time runs the risk of waiting until it is too late – diversification makes it so we don’t have to guess.
Carol: That’s the thing, though; I am not guessing. I work there….
The ‘fighting’ and defensiveness goes on and on, and Carol just digs in further and further. Carol gets really tired of sparring with Frank and starts to think about simply firing him.
Luckily, though, Frank regularly reads the Nerd’s Eye View blog and knows that you don’t only have to present the cons to clients, you can also emphasize the positives as an alternative strategy.
This can be done by tipping the ‘pro side’ of the scale with the positive benefits around the issue and assuming (at least for the moment) there is nothing you can do about the ‘con side’.
During Frank’s next meeting with Carol, their conversation goes like this:
Frank: We have been working together for a while, I know we share the same portfolio philosophy, but it isn’t often that I hear your perspective. For instance, I know you believe in diversification, I’d like to find out what benefits you see in diversifying?
Carol: Well, I know it helps to offset certain aspects of risk, and I like that idea.
Frank: Offsetting risk is a good reason. Give me a few other benefits.
Carol: Well, maybe with less risk, I can sleep better. I mean, I do believe in my company, and we are doing well. But there are also days when I think about how even though it has all worked out so far, I know that might not last forever.
Frank: Thank you for opening up about sleeping better. If there are other physical benefits, like sleeping better, that come up, can you describe them to me? And are there other advantages aside from physical benefits? Tell me what benefits that relate to your emotions, or even in your relationships, come to mind when you think of diversification.
Carol: You know, I’ve never thought of emotion or relationships as it pertains to diversification. Yet, I have discussed diversification with my kids. I know I haven’t fully done it, even though I did promote its benefits. It would feel good to walk the talk for them.
The differences between the two conversations in Example 3 above are huge. Did you notice how you felt while reading them? Maybe you felt a bit tense while reading the first one, but less so reading the second?
Notice how the second conversation about positives focused only on fact-finding. The push to make the client implement change in order to avoid certain consequences wasn’t the point of the second conversation. The pressure on both Frank the Financial Advisor (for him to convince his client Carol to take action) and Carol the Client (to suddenly be ready to make the change proposed by Frank) has been alleviated.
Through the process of creating more positives than negatives, Carol and Frank have an enlightening and open follow-up conversation together, in contrast to the combative and frustrating first conversation where they played roles on opposing sides.
Educating Clients About How To Change
Another thing that clients often need in the Pre-Contemplation stage (and something that most financial advisors tend to agree with) is education… because education does matter! The trick is to understand why it matters and when to use it. As while education isn’t always as impactful in helping clients to take action (as just lecturing people does not usually bring about change), it does have an impact on clients who are thinking about change – therefore, it matters a great deal to clients moving from Pre-Contemplation to Contemplation.
Moreover, if clients don’t consider the positive aspects of the behavior change, then hearing about (i.e., trying to educate on) why the change matters may very well fall on deaf ears.
In the first example, Carol the Client wouldn’t have made use of any education that Frank could or would provide on diversification. However, after the second conversation, the positive focus served to open Carol to the idea of diversification… especially by actively tying Carol’s personal positives to the education.
Example 4: Frank the Financial Advisor feels relaxed and even enlightened after the conversation identifying positives with Carol the Client, so he decides to throw in some extra ‘food for thought’ on diversification.
Frank even feels a bit proud of Carol for coming up with those positives. Over the years, Frank simply thought Carol wasn’t hearing him, but it turns out she was…
Frank: You know, another benefit of diversification that we haven’t ever really gotten into, and that I think adds to your comment about sleeping better at night, is that diversification reduces volatility.
Carol: Yeah? Agreed, I mean…I hate the swings. It makes me physically sick sometimes.
Frank: Yes, another benefit…
Frank does not expect his client Carol to change after this conversation. Education isn’t expected to end in action; it just ends in contemplation (which is a step forward along the change continuum).
Importantly, just because no action was taken does not mean that the education didn’t work. On the contrary, it did work…it got Carol thinking.
Activating Client’s Emotions About Change
Finally, emotional activation helps people move from Pre-Contemplation to Contemplation. Why must we be emotionally activated to move forward? Think about your brain structure for a moment.
Because our emotional brain is bigger than our logical brain, we can know that we need to do something and yet still not win the fight against feeling scared or uneasy about doing it. In those moments, it takes a lot of willpower and a lot of self-control to go with logic to do the things we need to do and to ignore our feelings. Whereas if our emotions support the action and help us proceed, willpower and self-control are not an issue.
Example 5: Carol the Client knows (using her logical brain) that it is ‘right’ to diversify. Yet, at the moment, she does not feel (using her emotional brain) driven to make this change. In fact, Carol feels many emotions compelling her to just stay where she is, as expressed in the initial dialog.
Consider the dialog she has with her financial advisor, Frank:
Frank: You know Carol, your comment about your kids and being a financial role model for them… that was pretty powerful. Tell me more about that.
Carol: Yeah, I didn’t have parents that really spoke to me about money. They did their best, but… I know there has to be a better way.
Frank: Correct me if I am wrong, but from what you said earlier and what you are saying now, it sounds like you want to be good with your money and have your financial life in order so you can not only answer questions about money, but serve as a real-life example for your children.
Carol: Yeah, I probably would not have been that eloquent, but yeah. I want to teach them. I want them to ask me questions, and I want to be a role model for them.
Frank: That is awesome, Carol. Wow. I am so glad you shared all of that…
Carol: Yeah, me too. I guess at the same time, I am now more aware of the fact that I am not where I actually want to be – I haven’t diversified, as where this conversation started, and I haven’t done other things you have asked me to do either. I honestly still don’t feel ready to make these changes, but gosh… I have way more to think about. Thank you for taking the time to walk through some of this. I am not sure I realized some of the things we discussed here today, or maybe realized them fully, until today.
In the dialog above, Carol is thinking about her current self and the future self she wants to be. She has moved way beyond just whether ‘to diversify or not’ and has gotten into some incredibly powerful emotionally activated goals, such as serving as a financial role model for her children.
Carol is connecting positives (being a role model for her kids) not just to education (the importance of diversification and other elements of her financial plan) but also to emotion (the satisfaction, pride, and joy of being a good parent). Although she is still not yet ready to take action and make an immediate change, she is finally – for the first time! – really considering making a change and she is being honest with her financial advisor Frank about where she stands – not yet ready, but thinking.
In essence, clients don’t benefit as much from being told that they are at point A and won’t be able to reach point B if they keep going down the same path. Instead, if they recognize this for themselves and what the process of change means to them on an emotional level, this three-step process (identifying positives, offering relevant education, and connecting emotional significance to the action) can help get them there.
Pre-Contemplation Tools For Advisors To Use With Clients To Facilitate The Change Process
If you are thinking to yourself, “Yes, these ideas about using positives, education, and emotional activation to help clients move from Pre-Contemplation to Contemplation sound great. But I am never going to remember this stuff on my own – what tools are available to help me remember what to do?”… have no fear!
Moving through the stages of change is hard for anyone to do, let alone leading another person to move through them. However, in their book, the Prochaskas offer several tools that can help advisors work with clients through the stages of change. And with the support of worksheets based on these tools, advisors can have conversations that help their clients move toward making the changes important to their financial plans.
Identifying Clients’ Positive Reasons To Change
As seen in the examples earlier, the dialog between Frank the Financial Advisor and his client Carol illustrates the natural tendency for clients to get defensive when the negative reasons for not doing something are pointed out.
And because we often don’t take much time to think about and discuss positive reasons to take action (versus the negative outcomes for not taking action), we often don’t consider all the ways that making a change can be positive.
Accordingly, using a tool to help clients generate ideas about positive aspects of change can be an effective way to bring subconscious desires and incentives forward (such as Carol’s desire to be a role model for her children).
The worksheet, “Identifying Positives for Financial Change”, below, can be used as a conversation starter for financial advisors who may find it difficult to think of open-ended questions to explore how clients feel. Advisors can simply share the list with clients, asking them to circle the items that apply to or resonate with them.
While this list serves to provide some examples for clients who may be struggling with savings issues, advisors can easily switch out statements or create different examples to suit the specific needs of their clients and design the document around common sticking points they see in their office.
This list illustrates the vast scope of reasons for changing and explains why some of the positivity domains include topics that financial advisors may not have considered discussing with clients. For example, advisors may not often talk about physical or purposeful well-being – at least not directly – yet, they are valid reasons that motivate us to change. There are a wide variety of areas in our lives that, given some attention, can reveal what motivates us to (eventually) take action. Changing is not just about avoiding bad outcomes, but also about recognizing and cultivating good aspects of our lives that deserve our attention.
Furthermore, advisors who may think they know the particular reason a client wants to change will still want to refrain from jumping to conclusions. In the earlier examples, Carol’s financial advisor, Frank, had always believed that safety was Carol’s main concern, only to find out that the bigger push for Carol was actually to be a role model for her children. It would have been hard for either Frank or Carol to uncover this priority without some work to purposefully identify Carol’s positives.
Here is an example of how this worksheet can be used to explore the positive outcomes that resonate with the client and shows how it can even initiate important conversations between spouses when the client is a married couple.
Example 6: Frank is feeling pretty pleased with how his last conversation with his client Carol had gone – Carol actually thanked him when they were done!
Accordingly, he is going to try something similar using the worksheet with his new client couple, Lena and Todd Moneymaker.
Lena and Todd really need to update their will. The Moneymakers created a will when they first got married over 25 years ago. They now have 3 kids and have asked about what changes they should make. Their conversation goes like this:
Frank: I want to try something a little different today. I want to learn more about where you are both at regarding updating your will…
[Todd groans a bit; Lena shifts in her seat – they are both uncomfortable, settling in for what feels like another lecture that they do not feel like listening to…]
Frank: I hear you, but this isn’t what you think. This won’t be a lecture. I’m actually hoping that you both will be lecturing me a bit.
[Frank passes the worksheets across the table, one to each of them.]
Todd: And this is…
Frank: Here is a list of benefits of updating your estate plan. I know that estate planning matters to you; we talk about its importance all the time. What I am more interested in today is why it matters to you; this little worksheet can help to generate some ideas. All I want you to do is read through each statement and circle the ones that resonate with you.
Todd and Lena fill out their respective worksheets; it only takes a few minutes. Frank then asks Todd and Lena, individually, what top three (or two or one) stand out to them. Then, in much the same way Frank did with Carol, Frank just asks the couple to discuss their responses.
Frank: Lena, tell me about your number one choice.
Lena: I actually chose “Prevent relationship problems stemming from money.”
Frank: Interesting, describe for me why you chose that…
Lena: Well, I don’t want my kids to fight when I am gone. It sickens me, and I know that happens.
Frank: Todd, how about you?
Todd: I chose “Help my loved ones to worry less about me financially (and themselves).”
Frank: Great, illustrate that further for me…
Todd: Well, I know that Lena worries about me. After that small heart-attack last year. I just… I know she worries, and I want her to know the plan. I want there to be a plan for her, for the kids, for me.
Much like the conversation between Frank and Carol in the earlier examples, Lena and Todd Moneymaker are beginning to think about priorities with which they have some pretty heavy emotional attachments, and creating their own positive talk and reasoning for implementing change that will support those priorities. They are not focusing on any of the reasons not to change.
By using this approach, the advisor can learn about the aspects of implementing change that actually motivate the client, and then use that information in future discussions with the client. They can also use this information to craft effective reminders (e.g., to make sure clients are on track), or meaningful follow-up messages (e.g., to congratulate them on doing things to stick to their plan), once they have made the change.
While it might feel a little odd the first few times you use this strategy, there are different approaches to implementing it, such as making it a part of an intake process, creating a fun get-to-know-you activity in an initial meeting, or developing a new side project for clients that are stuck. Services like Money Quotient have built a long list of similar questionnaire-style tools for advisors to facilitate such conversations with their clients.
Remember, not all clients will be stuck. Some will move right along and that is great. Or maybe they will move right along with some things, but not others. Moreover, when and if they get stuck (even if they weren’t stuck before), you can reserve this as a special brainstorming activity to be used during interactive financial planning meetings to help those stuck clients get back on track. Some clients may benefit from or further motivate the ones that are already progressing from the Pre-Contemplation stage to the Contemplation stage easily.
Educating Clients To Get Them Unstuck (But This Worksheet Is On You!)
Education is imperative, but we don’t have a worksheet (or PowerPoint slide) for that… however, the chances are that advisors who take time to teach their clients about financial planning do have an array of resources and tools to educate their clients.
The thing to remember with education is that people struggle with knowing how to change – or what options they have in front of them that can lead to change. Spend time addressing these issues during the education process – not just the “what”, but the “how” in particular.
For instance, Todd and Lena Moneymaker knew the nuts and bolts of creating a Will. Yet, they didn’t know how to articulate their hopes and fears and ensure that those would be addressed as part of the Will. Thus, instead of just telling the couple to talk to an estate planner, their financial advisor Frank also suggests recording video messages for their children and walking through to catalog important heirlooms so that the estate planning attorney can more efficiently draft a side letter of instruction for their Will. The list could go on, but the point here is that Frank not only addresses the “what”, he also addresses the “how” in a way that speaks to the client’s needs.
Also, remember that action doesn’t need to be the endgame for education. Educating clients can simply be a good way to help clients brainstorm ideas around their opinions, emotions, and attitudes around the topic being discussed. Not only does education help bring greater clarity to clients about the significance of the action needed in their financial plan, but it also gives them direction on how to actually implement the change when the time comes for them to do so.
Whether your clients are reticent about diversification like Carol, or loathe to get started on their estate plan updates like Lena and Todd, try to add pertinent education into the discussion that speaks to change and addresses the positives that emotionally activate the client.
Addressing Client Defensiveness Through Emotionally Activating Exercises
According to TTM, emotional activation to help clients move out of the Pre-Contemplation stage not only motivates clients toward taking action toward their goals (they want to close the gap that they see) but also addresses feelings of demoralization from lack of confidence (e.g., from past failed attempts, or feeling overwhelmed by an overly ambitious strategy).
Emotional activation can be accomplished by a mix of consciousness-raising (identifying negative aspects associated with not changing and comparing and contrasting the current and future self to purposefully create a sense of discomfort) and dramatic relief (helping to alleviate the client’s discomfort that can result from consciousness-raising).
For example, Carol (in the dialog from Examples 3 – 5) felt discomfort arising when she thought about what it would mean to keep her company stock as her financial advisor Frank helped raise her consciousness about what diversification could actually mean for her (e.g., helping to serve as a better role model for her kids). And once Frank introduced some education to help Carol accept the idea to diversify, Carol experienced dramatic relief by becoming motivated toward changing simply by the awareness of options that would help her realize her more important goal (e.g., being that better role model for her kids, versus keeping her company stock to enjoy a potentially risky profit).
While it is unhealthy to keep the sources of defensiveness (e.g., stress, fear, and shame) bottled up inside, advisors can find it scary to tap into these emotions with their clients. Additionally, defensiveness is often the mind’s way of tricking us into believing that not changing is somehow safer and/or better than changing. Thus, addressing a client’s defensiveness and helping them understand why they are feeling defensive can also help them progress through the change process. Thankfully, there are worksheets based on TTM principles that advisors can use with clients to make these conversations easier.
The worksheet “Addressing Financial Defensiveness”, below, points out some ways that defensiveness shows up and helps clients – not the advisor! – to identify for themselves when they are being defensive about choosing the status quo. It is designed to help raise the client’s consciousness by purposefully bringing up negative emotions and behaviors that can result from not changing and the underlying stress that it can cause us.
Consider the example below, illustrating how financial advisors might implement the worksheet into client meetings.
Example 7: Frank the Financial Advisor from previous examples has also been working with his client Tonya. Tonya, like Carol, has expressed that she wants to save more, but has yet to make spending changes.
In fact, Frank has begun to notice that at each mention of this change Tonya is becoming more resistant and is growing increasingly defensive. Frank is meeting with Tonya today and has decided to try something a bit different. Letting Carol and the Moneymakers think about their own thoughts and feelings might just work for Tonya, too.
Their meeting begins as follows:
Frank: Thanks for coming in today, Tonya. If it is alright with you, I called this meeting because I just want to learn more about you. Specifically, we have discussed savings goals many times, and I have heard you express reasons for having not yet made spending changes, which I completely respect.
Tonya: Yeah, I am just not ready and just bringing it up…it just feels frustrating.
Frank: Yes, thank you for sharing with me how you feel. It isn’t easy to tell me that it isn’t working, but I am really glad that you have and because I now know this, we are going to try something different.
[Frank passes the worksheet across the table.]
Frank: When we are stressed, we tend to get defensive. It is normal. What I want to know is what comes up for you and why. I know you are not going to make changes yet, and you should not make changes until you are fully ready. This exercise is about that, not about changing, just getting ready and contemplating what is holding us back from being ready. Willing to give it a try?
Tonya: Yeah, can’t hurt, right?
Frank: No, it won’t hurt. It might even be fun. We don’t take a lot of time to think about why we think and feel the way we do about money. So, this is the time for that – just thinking.
After the client or couple fills out their worksheet, talk about their answers, and continue to build that connection between their current self and their future self.
Some follow-up questions you might consider asking the client after going through the worksheet exercise:
- Which of these sticks out to you the most?
- How often do you find yourself feeling this way or doing these things?
- What have you learned from thinking about your defenses in this way?
This exercise in consciousness-raising relies on emotional activation to guide clients to face the dichotomy of resistance, not only by showing how it serves as a protective defense mechanism against change, but also by helping us to realize that resistance also works against what we know to be right and what we have agreed is important to solve.
Working With Clients To Recognize The Magnitude Of Their Financial Stress/Distress
In addition to helping clients recognize their defensiveness against change, advisors can also encourage them to overcome resistance by showing them how to deal with financial distress.
Again, humans tend to be less aware of what we do and why we do it than one might imagine. Having clients go through the worksheet “Dealing With Financial Stress”, below, gives the client (and the advisor) insight into how they are (or are not) communicating about their financial stress and concerns – which, again, the client themselves may not even realize that they do (we don’t often take the time to think about how we manage or even experience stress).
Here is how Frank uses this worksheet with his client, Tonya.
Example 8: Frank is still meeting with Tonya, from Example 7. They have been having a good talk, and actually identified a few ways that Tonya handles her financial stress. So Frank and Tonya decide to keep the good going.
Frank: Thank you for being open to that exercise on what financial stress looks like for you. It is so interesting how we all manifest stress in different ways.
Tonya: Yes, I certainly knew I was stressed out but really never verbalized why, and so maybe I never really thought consciously about what I was doing or not doing and why. Totally enlightening!
Frank: Well, if you are up for it, I would also like us to walk through another worksheet. This one isn’t just about how we react when we are financially stressed, this one also helps us to identify other ways we might be able to deal with or think about the stress. Willing to explore?
Tonya: Yes, I am open to it. Thanks for doing this, it is interesting. It does give me a new perspective.
Using this worksheet offers advisors a strategy to help clients formally recognize how they deal with (or don’t deal with) financial stress and gives the client information about themselves – which is very different than the advisor making assumptions or using generalities.
Completing this exercise sets the stage for the next step which is for the advisor to offer the client dramatic relief by addressing the client’s feelings together with them. Advisors can remind clients that, although they may not like what they have identified through these exercises examining defensiveness and stress, there are other options for addressing these feelings!
Working with a financial advisor can be very much a part of helping the client identify those options and creating a list of things they can do for themselves, even when the advisor is not around to work with them.
How TTM Tools Help Advisors Deal With Their Own Discomfort Working With Distressed Clients
Last but not least, advisors will find it helpful to have strategies that help them deal with their own discomfort – which is important to do before addressing the client’s uncomfortable feelings and emotions – especially if the intent is to engage with clients in a genuine and inspiring way.
Talking about uncomfortable emotions with clients can be scary because we worry about the impact the conversation can have on a client or a business, especially when broaching these conversations is new for advisors. But there is no reason to rush out and try these techniques immediately.
Instead, advisors can practice using these worksheets with friends, family, or other advisors in their firm before using them with clients.
These techniques are not therapy; moving through the stages of change is how change naturally happens in humans. These techniques simply show us how we can facilitate and support others as they move through change.
You can work with clients and understand the stages of change; the process isn’t magic. It is human.
Right, right…fine. But what if the client starts to cry?!
It isn’t always comfortable when a client cries or gets upset, but that discomfort arises partly because we just don’t understand why it is happening or how to stop it (not that we need to stop it – it’s okay to let clients cry and express themselves, just have a box of tissues in plain site that they can reach for when they are ready).
Using strategies founded on TTM principles may result in the client crying, but by asking the clients to go through these worksheets, they will have a framework to verbalize why they are crying or upset. The worksheets use a questioning process that lets clients discuss any feelings that come up for them and greet those emotions with openness and interest. For many clients, this approach may be just what they need to tackle their resistance to change.
Furthermore, using the TTM worksheets can also give clients hope; for example, the list of tips below can be given to clients and emphasizes positive aspects of financial situations, and lets clients know how and when to can turn to you and turn to others (including themselves) for help during this process of change.
The principles of TTM describe the human condition – change. But instead of simply saying, “Yes, we all change… get used to it!” it actually tells us what people need at each stage of the change process to make progress into the next stage.
So, instead of just getting used to change… advisors can instead get better at talking about change with their clients!
Change is hard because change is confusing. We often don’t know how to change. And we are often scared to do something when we’ve tried it before and failed. Simply because we know implementing change is a good thing, it doesn’t mean we feel good about doing it!
By following the process laid out by TTM, advisors can help clients (and themselves!) figure out how to move forward by giving them beneficial guidance for their particular stage in the change process, whether it be teaching them how to change, curbing their fear of failure, teaching them that change doesn’t have to start with action (on the contrary, it starts with inactive Pre-Contemplation and Contemplation), and giving them many great ideas and the space to recognize the powerful emotions that come up as they consider these ideas!