By Chia-Li Chien
A warm, empathetic connection based on trust is a singularly important aspect of the financial counseling client-adviser relationship.
Many people were taught not to talk about money. This makes it difficult to help clients, particularly those who experience guilt around spending or insufficient savings. The verbal and nonverbal language the adviser uses can make clients feel that they are being judged, and the subsequent shame they feel may turn them off to the beneficial advice an adviser has to offer.
To better understand the concept of client shaming, I consulted Ekta Kumar, a clinical psychologist and director of diversity and inclusion initiatives for the Department of Psychiatry at USC. She has training and experience with facilitating difficult dialogue related to trauma and diversity.
Kumar explained that to shame is to make a judgment about someone’s personhood. Feeling shame can be paralyzing, causing one to be overcome with emotion, unable to move. A person can get stuck in shame.
An adviser would never intentionally make such judgments, but personal biases and experiences can affect the choice of words and body language and send the wrong message. An adviser may not be aware of client shaming so one needs to be sensitive to client behavior.
If the client seems checked out or doesn’t come back, or if the adviser is working harder than the client, the adviser should look at the areas of potential breakdown during the interaction. Also, advisers should monitor their own discomfort and adjust accordingly.
With many consulting sessions now taking place on Zoom, Kumar said advisers can see themselves as the client does and correct body language that may appear judgmental. Also, advisers may want to exaggerate intentional expressions and gestures during virtual sessions, or the intention may be lost. Eye contact is important, too.
Advisers need to encourage clients to share their back stories without shaming them. If clients say they are not good at saving money or they spend too much, Kumar recommended responding with empathy first.
We have all struggled at one time or another with finance. She suggested trying to show the client that financial success is the result of skill, and failing to meet financial goals does not necessarily result from character flaws.
Clients who have strong family ties may send money home even though it hurts their personal situation. An empathetic response from the adviser might be, “I admire your commitment to your family.” Then ask if there might be other options.
Kumar said certain individuals may stimulate biases in the adviser. When I was informally advising my mother-in-law about when to take Social Security, I had some preconceived notions about why she wanted to take the benefit sooner than is recommended but did not pursue her actual reasons. My bias about her culture and my relationship to her affected my interaction.
Kumar commented that many factors influence a person’s financial behavior, including culture, personal obligations and mental health. The adviser should ask neutral questions to determine clients’ priorities to help them arrive at solutions.
The adviser needs to listen deeply and well to the client’s passions and life goals, respond with support, then offer financial options with thoughtful language. If there is a mismatch of values between the client’s financial behavior and proven strategies, look for some middle ground.
Shaming, even though unintentional, will stand in the way of developing the trust-based empathetic connection that is so important to the financial planning client-adviser relationship.
Although each relationship is unique, the following points may help guide you:
• Be explicitly empathetic. “Tell me about your passions and life goals.”
• Listen actively, be thoughtful with language and be sensitive of self-care.
• Do not ask “why” questions. Probe with additional queries in a neutral way.
• Use neutral responses to help draw out what is of value to a client, such as “Tell me more about that.”
• Acknowledge that finance is difficult to talk about to relieve the client’s anxiety.
• Chia-Li Chien is the director of the Financial Planning Program at California Lutheran University, a certified financial planner, and an award-winning author with a doctorate in financial and retirement planning.