Although gaps in a conversation are often awkward and uncomfortable, when used effectively, they can become power tools for financial advisors to foster deeper connections with their clients. Because, beyond just hearing what financial concerns a client may have, advisors can use the opportunity to give space to the conversation, which helps to establish empathy and build trust, and in the process sometimes bringing to light the unique roadblocks clients may have in executing their plan.
In our 15th episode of Kitces & Carl, Michael Kitces and financial advisor communication expert Carl Richards sit down to discuss the value of really listening to clients, and how, by simply talking less and listening more in client meetings, an advisor can improve the chances that a client will stick to their plan.
In general, financial advisors are trained to be knowledge experts and to communicate that knowledge to clients. But even though clients seek out financial advisors for their technical expertise (after all, the main value-add financial advisors offer are the recommendations that help clients down the path of achieving their financial goals), what may not be so obvious are the reasons that clients will (or will not) successfully follow those recommendations. Reasons that can’t be discovered… unless the advisor gives the client the space to reveal them.
Because no matter how perfect and comprehensive a plan may be, it will offer little value if the client does not know how, or is unable, to follow it. Like a swimming instructor teaching a fearful student how to swim, it may be very clear to the advisor what steps the client needs to take and how to communicate what those steps are. Yet it may be harder to see the doubts and fears that the client may be holding on to – or about whether they can even trust the advisor in the first place – which, in turn, can give rise to a client’s hesitation and reticence to follow through… in essence, a “gap” between what the client knows (i.e., what you tell them), and what a client actually decides to do. But by encouraging clients to fully talk through their concerns – and by using silence as an opportunity for the client to reflect deeply on the questions asked – advisors can empathetically understand what a client’s true priorities are, and particularly, what may be creating the knowledge/action gap for the client.
In the end, the key point is simply that it’s okay, and maybe even potentially valuable, to have some silence during a client conversation, because it can lead to a better balance between the delivery of knowledge and the discovery of nuances that make the client a unique individual. Ultimately, by asking probing, relevant questions, and leveraging silence, advisors can become better listeners and strengthen their relationships with clients, and in doing so, may even identify the obstacles that are keeping them from sticking to their plan in the first place.
***Editor’s Note: Can’t get enough of Kitces & Carl? Neither can we, which is why we’ve released it as a podcast as well! Check it out on all the usual podcast platforms, including Apple Podcasts (iTunes), Spotify, and Stitcher.
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Kitces & Carl Video Transcript
Carl: Greetings. Welcome to another episode of “Kitces & Carl.” Michael, how are you?
Michael: I’m doing well, Carl. I’m doing well. How are you?
Carl: Things are very good.
Michael: Things are very good. Very good is very good.
Carl: That actually reminds me of today’s topic a little bit. You know how we say to be like, how are you?
Michael: Good, you?
Carl: Oh, I’m great. Yeah. Busy.
Michael: Awesome. Busy. Yeah, me too, busy.
Carl: Better than the alternative. Oh, yeah. Yeah, busy.
Michael: Yes, much better than the alternative, not busy, I would just get myself in trouble.
Carl: So have you ever had anybody, when you say “How are you?” actually go, “Gosh, Michael, I’m glad you asked,” and start telling you how they actually are?
Michael: Yeah, it usually gets awkward really fast.
Carl: Yeah, it’s funny, right? It’s funny because I think that’s what I wanted to talk about a little bit, was this idea of listening.
Michael: Like, “Oh, my God, he’s actually answering the question for real. I didn’t have time for this.”
Carl: Yeah, yeah. It’s funny. I was on a river trip and we had an exchange with somebody from Germany here, and he was very practical. We got up in the morning, we got on the boats, and we were paddling out into the current. His name was Lucas, and I said, “Lucas, how did you sleep?” And he said, “Fine. How did you? I don’t understand the question.” I said, “No, no, no, this is one of those things where I say, ‘How did you sleep?’ and then you say, ‘Fine. How did you sleep?’ and I say, ‘Good.’ And we go back to the thing. We don’t actually mean it. We don’t actually mean it.” But I think this cultural thing points at this bigger problem, which is listening.
What’s So Hard About (Spending Time) Listening? [01:56]
Carl: I think one of the most valuable skills…after we develop the important technical skills, I think one of the most valuable skills an advisor can have is the ability to ask really good questions and then listen. But there seems to be so much fear around that. Let me ask you, first of all, do you think advisors are scared to ask really good questions and then listen? And let’s focus on the listening part. Why do we have such a hard time listening? Advisors aren’t unique, by the way. Why do we humans have such a hard time listening?
Michael: Well, I don’t know if I can answer the metaphysical, “Why do humans have a lot of trouble listening?” But I think at the advisor level, it, at least to me, quickly becomes a lot more tangible. Like, why is it hard to spend a lot of time listening? Because I’m charging you thousands of dollars and you’re paying me for me to tell you some things. And at some point, I kind of need to also prove that I’m actually worth getting paid some money, of usually non-trivial dollar amounts, which at some point requires me demonstrating some expertise that can justify this fee that I’m charging you.
Carl: Do you think that’s true? Do you think what you just said is true?
Michael: Yes. It’s been my life for most of the past 20 years. Yes.
Carl: Fair enough. Tell me if I’m wrong on this, but you’re saying that you’re operating under the assumption that you get paid to tell people…
Michael: I get paid because I have expertise. I pay my accountant to tell me how to make my tax situation better. I pay my lawyer to tell me how to make my law problems go away. I pay my doctor to prescribe me something so it doesn’t hurt anymore. And I go to a financial advisor and I write a check so he tells me something to do or she tells me something to do that improves my financial situation of whatever pain point it is that made me go to the advisor in the first place.
Carl: Yeah. Are you mad?
Michael: No, I’m not mad, but I am kind of fired up. To me, this is knowledge worker domain. This is modern expertise domain. I learned some stuff, you’ve got a pain point you don’t know how to solve, you pay me as an expert, I give you some information or answers or my best recommendation. I’m not trying to be overly precise, with a god complex, like, “I will tell you everything to do in your life and your life will be perfect.” That’s not the point here. But yeah, we pay professionals because something hurts, and we want them to make the problem at least less painful. It’s why I pay my doctor. It’s why I pay my lawyer. It’s why I pay my accountant. Frankly, I don’t know why that would be any different in the realm of financial advisors. I’m not hiring a psychologist, I’m hiring a financial advisor because I’ve got money problems or questions or some issue or pain point that caused me to get off my backside and go to an advisor’s office and try to find one to hire.
Carl: Do you think solving somebody’s financial problems is a function of technical expertise or a function of modifying behavior over a long period of time?
Michael: I would ultimately say it’s both. It depends a little bit on exactly what the problem is. Certainly, if I come to the table with no actual expertise, the odds that I randomly guess and guide you down the correct behavior change that helps your situation would probably not be very good odds, right? You do want someone that knows what the heck they’re talking about.
Whether this is, at least as you framed it, a long ongoing behavior change problem, I think, depends on the context, right? Like if I just broke my elbow when I go to the doctor, I’m not looking for long-term behavior change, I’m looking for a frickin’ cast. Now, if I’ve got an ongoing weight problem, high blood pressure, and I need to make a lifestyle change so that I don’t have a heart attack in 10 years, then yeah, there’s a longer-term behavior change element that goes with this about getting me to a healthier lifestyle where I can lose weight and get my blood pressure down. So medicine has acute problems and chronic problems. I think we get probably an aspect of both as financial advisors. But either way, my fundamental presumption when I go to a doctor with either one of those situations, is that they know what the heck they’re talking about, and they better be able to demonstrate that.
Carl: So it’s good to see that we’re on the same page.
Carl: So I think maybe I’m understanding something for the first time. I think maybe we’re just approaching this from different angles…and I know we aren’t at the end because it’s always how it works. We always come around to sort of seeing the same point of view. But I think for the bulk of the work that we do (for those of you just listening to this, I’m trying to draw this in the air),..imagine if you had one box that said “knowing” and then there was a space and another box that said “doing.” I think we’re trying to close that gap. Bob Sutton at Stanford calls that the knowing-doing gap, right? And closing the knowing-doing gap is not a function of…
You already know, right? I think to a large degree…everybody listening to and watching this, I’m just making the assumption, I think you are too, that they’re already technically experts and that they’re honest. There are people we would send our mothers to, right?
Carl’s Ninja Trick To (Positively) Influence Behavior [08:18]
Often the type of advice we’re giving isn’t terribly complex, but it’s never easy to follow. And it’s never easy to follow because of closing the knowing-doing gap. And my experience has been that one of the best ways to influence people’s behavior is to stop trying and to start listening. My experience is that I’ve had this happen to me. I think it’s a ninja trick. In fact, it’s such a powerful ninja trick, I practice it. I’ll give you an example. I was at a conference and this lady came up to me, a financial planner, and said, “Carl, I’ve got this challenge, this problem, and I really need help. And I think based on the work that you do, you could help me. Can I talk to you about it for a minute?” And I said, “Sure.” And I had just presented on the ninja trick of listening. So I was like, “I’m going to try this.”
So she sits down. We find a quiet corner in the conference facility and she starts to lay out her problem like, “I’m a senior partner, dah, dah, dah, dah, dah, dah.” And I just did what I’ve been trained to do in other areas of my life, particularly… actually, I learned this mainly from relationships with my kids, and then also at church. And I just said, “Well, what have you tried? What’s worked?” And I just listened. “What did you think of that? How come that didn’t work? Have you seen anybody else solve this problem successfully?” And then about 15 minutes into that… Now, Dan Solin in his book, “The Smartest Sales Book You’ll Ever Read” he talks about… not oxycodone, but oxytocin.
Carl: Very, very important.
Michael: Small difference there.
Carl: It’s released in the brain when you hear yourself talking and somebody else is listening to you empathetically. So this also has a side effect, which is building trust. But she reaches across the chair and grabs my arm and goes, “Thank you so much, you’ve solved my problem,” and runs off. I didn’t say a word. And I’m not suggesting we can get away with not saying a word, but that first part, I think people come in asking for solutions, and we’re happy to provide them, but I think asking really good questions and listening is an incredibly important part of the diagnosis process. We can’t provide a solution until we diagnose.
And so my point really is, you’ve got to ask questions. Even as simple as like, “What are your goals?” We know no one’s going to give you their actual goals when you ask them, “What are your goals?” So you’re going to have to say something like, “Oh, tell me more,” or, “Go deeper,” or, “What’s important about that?” And in that moment, when you say, “Oh, tell me more,” why are we scared of that moment? The moment where we’re just quiet for a second. We’ve been trained to fill empty space. What have you seen from advisors…why do we run away from listening? And I’m wondering if it’s this assumption that you have, which I’m not saying is wrong, I’m just saying…this assumption you have is that they didn’t pay you for that, they paid you to fill that silence by telling them what to do.
Michael: I don’t know if I would go that far, even kind of taking this view that I think they’re paying us in no small part to share our expertise. I do think maybe part of it is a human thing in general, and it just gets worse when we’re in an expert knowledge profession kind of thing. That silence gets awkward fast, like in about two seconds. Silence gets awkward. And it’s really hard, I think just as a human being, to not step in and fill the silence. At least it was a struggle for me with clients. It’s a struggle for me with my wife; I’m slowly getting better at it. But I feel like there’s just a human thing, that makes it hard to sit back and stand still in that silence.
I still remember, I was on a task force once for FPA years ago with Jon Guyton, who’s a planner out of Minneapolis. And I remember he started off the very first committee meeting as the chair, where you set the ground rules and the framework, and one of the things he said out of the gate, which I’ll never forget, and this is probably 15 years ago, he said, “I just want you to all know, I’m a lot more comfortable in silence than other committees you’re used to.” And he would just allow moments of silence when something was going on that we were debating or talking about or batting around, and then that moment would go silent and he would not fill the silence. And it was a powerful effect.
I’ll admit now even as I’ve gone further down that road with clients and prospects in meetings, I will get to the point where I’ve asked some question or we’re in some dialogue and I can see the client is kind of taking themselves down the thread and there’s some pause in the conversation and I’m actively saying to myself in my head, “Just shut up and don’t talk. Shut up and don’t talk. Just shut up. Just let them keep going. Don’t step in and fill the silence.” Because it’s so hard I actually have to start telling myself this in my head. And then people do have some interesting breakthroughs sometimes in just getting to their own conclusion if I let them fill the silence.
So I do think and acknowledge there’s definitely a challenge around this tendency we seem to have to always want to fill the silences whenever they happen, regardless of their duration, regardless of their context. And not all of those should be filled. But I still don’t know that I would take it to the other end of the extreme of like, therefore, my most successful financial planning meeting is one where I never actually share my expertise. I just ask an hour and a half of questions.
Carl: Yeah. Well, I think that was beautiful, right? That idea of a committee person saying, “I’m comfortable with silence.” And I really think there’s deep wisdom in the idea of allowing space for people’s intuition to show up. And I think these decisions we’re trying to make about money are so personal, that allowing people and even teaching them and maybe even pointing to the idea that like, “Hey, how does it feel?” I say this all the time now, when you’re quiet, what comes up? What do you think? I just had this call. I still have 10 people in my life that consider me their financial planner. And as much as I’ve tried to point them to somebody that they should pay, one of them is my sister, and we just had a call with her and her husband last week, and they were trying to make an important decision. And I said, “Gosh, when you’re quiet about this, what are you… Here are the pros and here are the cons, here are the trade-offs. When you’re quiet about this, what do you think you should do?” And I think there’s some real power in that intuition.
Try To Just Ask One More Question[16:40]
So what if we just wrap this one up with just a suggestion? I think you’re exactly right, that it’s hard. It’s scary. I think it’s scary because when we listen…if we truly listen, we’re actually opening ourselves up to empathy and even the possibility of change. Like, we listen to somebody with a different opinion than us and we have to open ourselves up to, “Oh, my gosh, Michael, I think you’re right about that. I didn’t see it that way.” We naturally protect ourselves. But I think we have a particular problem, that is, we think that everybody is there to hear us talk about how smart we are.
And I’m just going to propose a little exercise of trying the ninja trick. Ask another question. “Oh, that’s interesting. Tell me more. Why is that important to you?” Because I think this shows up in some of the surveys, where we ask the client, “Why didn’t you implement that plan?” and the client says, “Well, the plan didn’t reflect what I wanted.” And the only way that could be true is if we didn’t ask enough questions and really diagnose. So I wonder if we just try some of these ninja tricks… I used to have a rule that, in the first meeting, nothing would come out of my mouth unless it ended with a question mark. And I never got there. It’s unreasonable to think you’re going to, but if you could even get 90% introduction, bunch of questions, close. And listen.
And don’t be…please, the one thing I would request is that we just remember what it is to be human. It’s funny, I get emotional about this instantly because I just think through some of the…I’ve watched advisors where somebody is like, “Gosh, my mom, every time I said I wanted something, she called me a spoiled brat.” And we’re like, “And what are your goals?” Just the idea of pausing on, “Oh, gosh, thanks for sharing with me. That must have been tough.” Right? Or somebody just passed away. “Bring me your estate plan and I’ll help.” It’s okay for us to go, “Hey, I know we’re here to talk about money. I know you’re going to get solutions. Can I just acknowledge for a minute that it’s hard to move on to this stuff until I just acknowledge, hey, I’m sorry about the loss.” Right? Now, most of us don’t do that because it’s really awkward.
Michael: They might start crying.
Carl: Yeah, people might cry. You might get emotion. You might feel something crazy. So I’m just going to suggest, maybe as we wrap up and you have your closing thoughts, that there’s more power in questions and listening and silence. I think there are solutions, beautiful solutions in the silence.
Michael: So I think there are one or two things I’d add to this. Look, I agree on that end. I think the point that you make on the other end of this extreme of clients who get the plan and recommendations, and don’t implement any of it, and when you ask them why, they say, “Well, it didn’t feel right for me,” or, “It didn’t feel right for my situation,” something that basically reflects the advisor just doesn’t actually understand their situation, I do think we have that challenge. I think we have that challenge across the industry.
The old saying, when your only tool is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. And I think a lot of us have that tendency sometimes without even realizing it. If I’m in the insurance business, I get to the insurance sale too fast. If I’m in the AUM business, I get to the AUM rollover a little too fast. I think a lot of us have that tendency. And the more pressure you feel on sales and business development and growth, the more you tend to take yourself there.
But the way I’ve started to formulate this. So there’s, a famous saying that God gave you two ears and one mouth, use them in that proportion. Spend two-thirds of your time listening and one-third talking. I’ve tried in prospect meetings to formulate this a little more directly and deliberately. If this is going to be a 1-hour meeting, the first 40 minutes I’m just going to try to keep directing questions back to them and make sure I understand their situation. And the last 20 minutes, I’ll do my part, my spiel, demonstrate my expertise, whatever it is in the context of that moment. If it’s an hour and a half meeting, it’s an hour for them and 30 minutes for me. And their part always goes first, for me this is what’s worked.
In my world where I still like my clear concrete structure, I’ve really struggled in not putting myself back into those conversations and be like, “All right, I can do my spiel at the one-hour mark. I just keep asking questions, you get to do your thing eventually.” It helps restrain me and keeps the conversation a little bit more focused. I don’t precisely watch the clock and think, “Sweet, 59 minutes is going to tick and I’m just going to start going.” At least for me, actually trying to set a little bit of that kind of structure helped just to give my brain a way to focus on when am I supposed to keep the questions on them, and when is it okay for me to do some of the stuff that I’m kind of aching to get out about sharing my expertise and why you should pay me. I think of this particularly in the context of prospect meetings, where I feel like the pressure is higher, right? Because I have to actually convince someone to pay me.
Carl: Okay. We have got to wrap, but on that note, I would just suggest, can we just leave it hanging out there?
Carl: What if the best way to convince somebody to pay you is to deeply listen to them? We’re going to leave it hanging out there. We’ll talk about it another time. We would love to know actually, do you want to hear us talk about that? What if the best way to convince somebody to pay you for your advice is to deeply listen to them?
Michael: Thank you, Carl.