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Are You Conflict-Averse? Too Bad

March 31, 2017

This time we hear from Marguerita Cheng, principal of Blue Ocean Global Wealth in Rockville, Md. She explains how one client couple helped her recognize the conflict-averse nature of her personality.

When I started my career as an advisor, I knew I was in the right business. I like helping people, I like educating, I like making a difference, and I’m empathetic. But the flipside of those qualities is I’m very uncomfortable with conflict.

I discovered this truth about myself during a meeting with a couple who got into a big argument about money right in front of me.

This couple, who started working with me for financial planning, had a whole host of issues including ongoing money tensions.

They began bickering in my office over saving for a cash reserve and never came to an agreement about taking action. About five months later he lost his job and their home ended up going into foreclosure. The cash reserves they had never managed to agree on could have prevented them from losing their home. They were very clear about taking responsibility for this and didn’t blame me for their situation, but it still caused me a lot of anguish.

It made me realize my financial training hadn’t prepared me for how to handle conflict. Instead I was taught to walk through the plan I put together: go through net worth, cash flow and then jump into the goals. But that hadn’t worked in this situation. The part of my personality that wanted to solve their problems – help them and make a difference in their lives – didn’t get any satisfaction working with this couple. I didn’t like to see people go through all the trouble of gathering data and paying a fee to meet with me, and then be unable to accomplish anything because of tensions and bickering. I knew I needed to find another strategy.

Marguerita Cheng

I decided to make my meetings with clients more interactive; to inject some fun into the room to allay tensions right away. I now put out colored pens and paper and ask both the husband and wife to write down their own goals separately. I tell them there are no wrong answers and they can’t cheat, which always makes them smile. Starting off in a light-hearted way also helps me emphasize the helpful, solution-seeking part of my personality that helps counteract my discomfort with conflict.

The first success I had with this strategy was with a working husband and a stay-at-home wife and mother of small children.

When we started talking about goals, the wife made it very clear she was worried about how she would survive if something happened to her husband. She wanted him to get life insurance.

The topic of life insurance can be a prime area for conflict because it involves talking about death. Had I just jumped in and said, “Hey, she wants to talk about life insurance,” I would have caused tensions to rise, and I expect the meeting wouldn’t have gone well.

I also could have talked around the subject and instead focused on the husband’s retirement goal to try and avoid conflict. Instead, I played to the strengths of my personality: I presented the issue of life insurance as a solution to the wife’s anxieties, rather than a negative or touchy subject.

The husband did get life insurance and to this day he still has it. For me, however, the success was not about making a life insurance sale; it was about fostering a relationship in which I’m helping this couple, which makes both them and me happy.

Today, when I coach other advisors, I help them think about their roles within the context of their personalities. I tell them they don’t need to change who they are to be successful. Instead, I encourage them to embrace the strengths of their personalities and to use those strengths to help counteract the weak spots.