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Talk Less, Listen More

December 1, 2017

This time we hear from Irene Dabanian, principal of Shoreline, Wash.-based IJD Evergreen Financial Services. She talks about how she learned to bite her tongue and allow clients to talk about what matters most to them.

In 2003, not long after I started out as an advisor, I met with a potential client who was facing a lot of financial stress. She was a single woman in her 40s who had recently switched jobs. She was making less than she used to but hadn’t adjusted her spending to fit her new income. On top of that she had a lot of consumer debt. It was clear to me she needed to make a big change. So, I blurted out that she needed to sell her house. Pretty much right away.

She didn’t respond well to this suggestion, to say the least. She told me selling her house wasn’t an option. But when I tried to explore other options with her she was reluctant to discuss those as well. It was clear I’d overstepped a boundary in her eyes, and she ended up choosing another advisor.

Afterward, I reflected on the interaction. What I had told her wasn’t false; selling her house would be a necessary step in her coming to terms with her financial reality. Where I had gone wrong was in failing to allow her to come to that conclusion with me. From her perspective, I was a stranger ordering her to do something painful. It was no wonder she didn’t want to work with me.

I promised myself that from there on out, when I met with potential clients for the first time, I would do more listening and let clients reveal their stories at their own pace.

Soon after, I met with a couple looking to build a retirement plan. I employed my new strategy: ask questions, then sit back and listen. Before I knew it, the husband was telling me the story of the death of their teenage son, from the sheriff’s knock on the door to the 90-mph race in the squad car to the trauma center, where he saw his son alive for the last time. This had happened 10 or 12 years before our meeting, but the husband described the scene so vividly it was like I was there with him. I had a child around the same age as his son, and I couldn’t help but feel sympathy with this couple.

Irene Dabanian

Later, after I’d been working with this couple for some time, I asked the husband why he’d shared that story with me right away. He told me that he didn’t know why, but that something about my manner made him feel like he could trust me.

I’m so grateful the couple felt comfortable sharing this tragic story with me right off the bat. First, it had a direct impact on the couple’s finances, and on the financial decisions I’d be helping them make. Second, it gave me insight into the motivation behind the decisions they would be making. The death of their son impacted the way they felt about their remaining child and their grandchildren, and impacted how these heirs would factor into their long-term financial plan.

Not everyone will share intimate details of their lives right after you meet them, but if you ask questions and give them a chance, they’re a lot more likely to open up. The way to earn their trust is to listen to what they tell you in a nonjudgmental way. Then, when you feel comfortable with each other, you can start to have discussions about making big decisions — whether that means selling their house or creating an estate plan that benefits their grandchildren.