Elizabeth Jetton, M.Ed., CFP®, is a retired practitioner and former president of FPA. She is a speaker, author, mentor, and consultant to FPA on member learning strategy. She is on the faculty of Golden Gate University’s M.S. in advanced financial planning program, and has a private financial planning consulting practice.
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Communication is at the heart of elevating a client’s perception of quality care—and that perception significantly influences the client’s level of trust and commitment. Commitment moves our clients to follow our recommendations and take action, and to make the changes that lead to progress and financial improvements.
As much as financial planners may love them, pie charts and Monte Carlo simulations are not a pathway to financial nirvana. The good news is that robo-advisers cannot do what personal financial planners can—that is, help clients connect their money and financial decisions with their unique life, their goals, and their values. Financial planners are called upon to respond to an individual’s specific vision, fears, dreams, concerns, and challenges. We collaborate and co-create solutions and possibilities, one client and family at a time, over time, building trust and the relationship. How do we integrate a system of consistent and effective communication and attention to building trust into our client care process?
Communication includes how we listen. It’s also our ability to set context and frame ideas; articulate clearly complex ideas; engage the listener; ask meaningful open questions; and set aside our own beliefs, judgements, and biases to engage with curiosity and respect. Communication is a two-way conversation in which each participant is offering something and receiving something in return. The conversations we have with our clients shape the quality of the relationship and ultimately determine the level of success of the engagement as we move through the financial planning process.
Meetings are at the heart of the planning process because this is where we have critical conversations that demonstrate our value and genuine care. How do we ensure that we have healthy, purposeful conversations in every client meeting? Neuroscience and theories of adult learning offer relevant guidance for how to structure effective meetings (the sources used in this article are listed at the end).
This article introduces a six-step model of delivering meetings that integrates the science and learning theories. It is designed to elevate the quality of our communication and conversations, and to support consistency for best results.
The Neuroscience Behind a Good Meeting
Neuroscience offers insights that help us understand the structures in the brain that influence the quality of our conversations, reactions, sense of trust, and our behaviors. We are wired to protect ourselves from harm. In every encounter, we first seek to determine if we are safe. In the 21st century, adults feel threatened for myriad reasons. Regardless of the reason, threats stimulate the release of neurochemicals that paralyze the brain’s ability to think clearly, make decisions, and feel trust. Threats activate our reactions to fight, flight, or freeze or appease, known as the “amygdala hijack,” in which the primitive part of the brain takes control.
How do your clients feel when they enter a meeting with you, whether virtual or face-to-face? What assumptions are you making about their state of mind? It is likely they are feeling stressed and maybe even threatened, as—like all humans—they are constantly responding and trying to cope in this age of acceleration, uncertainty, and complexity.
A threat can result from a vocal tone or language that makes one feel judged; from the fear of making a mistake or of failure; the fear of looking stupid; feeling out of control; or from a threat to status that makes us feel small. We may inadvertently trigger any of those threats in our clients, just by doing what we think we should do—that is, exerting our expertise and control.
Somehow, planners need to activate their clients’ prefrontal cortex, the newer part of brain, also known as the “executive brain.” When we are functioning from the executive brain, neurotransmitters are activated that trigger happiness, bonding, and trust, and provide a buffer against stress. In this state we have the capacity to think clearly, learn, and make good decisions.
This six-step meeting model provides a framework for leading purposeful, healthy conversations that engage the executive brain and build trust. It is applicable to any type of meeting in every phase of the seven-step financial planning process. The steps are: (1) prepare strategically with purpose; (2) establish rapport and purpose; (3) inquire and discover; (4) guide the conversation for further progress; (5) complete and close the meeting effectively; and (6) follow through and follow up.
Step 1: Prepare Strategically with Purpose
Purpose: Get excited about the client’s opportunities. First, define the “why” of the meeting. What do you need to get out of the meeting, and what does your client or prospect need to get out of it?
The planner’s frame of mind matters. Having a positive narrative for the client serves as the golden thread throughout the meeting. Reflect on the client’s story and core goals. Get excited about their possibilities and opportunities for progress. Preparation is collaborative.
The process includes conversation and interaction with the client so they begin to get curious and engaged. This begins with sending a short questionnaire focused on personal and life updates. Review notes from calls and prior meetings, and consult your master planning checklist. Note if the client might be approaching life transitions that should be discussed. You are their advocate, helping them prepare for a future they may not yet see, but that you know is ahead of them. Now you are ready to draft an agenda that reflects the core concerns of the client and the goals you hold for furthering their progress.
A meeting is a performance, so hold a dress rehearsal one week in advance. Whether working alone or in a team, sitting down to review all elements of the meeting prepares you to be fully present and helps you catch errors. On the day of the meeting, prepare yourself. Take time to pause; visualize the client and a successful meeting. Do a final review of the materials and reflect on the purpose of the meeting. Block enough time for your meeting to include the time to prepare, to move through the meeting at the client’s pace, and to address surprises that may come up in the meeting.
Step 2: Establish Rapport and Purpose
Purpose: Get the clients excited about their opportunities. Well begun is half done. How we begin sets the tone and context for the entire meeting. Adults assess the quality of a conversation in about .07 seconds, as biochemical reactions are triggered immediately. Having a template for starting a meeting frees you to be present and pay attention to the client. It brings consistency, focus, and energy to your opening that elevates your communication and shifts the client’s brain from the stressed state to the engaged and trusting executive brain.
Welcome and check in. Adults need to belong, to be heard, and to be appreciated. Smile and make eye contact with each person. Shake hands and greet your visitors warmly, using their names. Make sure you know what they prefer to be called, and use their children’s and pets’ names early on. Tell them that you are happy to see them.
Check in with their mood by asking with genuine interest, “How is your day going?” This is not an offhanded question. You are seeking critical information. If your client is having a stressful day, or something unexpected has come up, you want to know right away so you can adjust and respond appropriately. You may want to suggest they take a few minutes to decompress, or even ask if they would like to reschedule. Make sure the client is ready, relaxed, and comfortable before launching into the content of the meeting. Demonstrate your empathy and respect.
Check on their time. Avoid the potential for an unexpected disruption midway through your conversation, in which your client gets up and tells you they need to leave. Simply ask, “How is your time today? We set aside 90 minutes for our meeting. Is that still good for you?” It is not wise to try to cram 90 minutes worth of conversation into 45 minutes. Demonstrate your leadership and respect by adjusting the agenda to accommodate the shorter time available, if needed.
Tend to the client’s comfort. Ask if they are comfortable. Get to know their preferences. Minimize distractions. Avoid a threat to your client’s sense of status and ego by eliminating a seat at the head of the table. No one sits at the head of the table.
Create value and enthusiasm around your preparation. You do a lot of work in preparation for a meeting, so let the client in on the secret. Share your enthusiasm and highlight your preparation to shape the positive framing of the meeting and to elevate the client’s mood and level of positive anticipation. For example, you might say, “I am excited about our conversation today. I spent a lot of time with the notes from our last meeting, reviewing your updated form and financials, and I see some opportunities we can discuss.” Find something positive to say that creates anticipation. Anticipation generates engagement and opens the mind to new learning.
Invite the client to offer their agenda before you review yours. “I have created an agenda for today’s meeting, but I am more interested in what you want to get out of our time together. What is on your agenda?” Listen without interruption and resist the urge to give advice—now is not the time. Let them know you have heard them and that, even if you can’t fully address all of their issues today, you will make sure to touch on each issue and come up with a plan for addressing them thoroughly. Now you have earned the right to offer your agenda because you have shared control.
Offer a clear, concise, and purposeful agenda. Every meeting has a purpose. State it clearly—what they want, and what you need to get from the conversation. The purpose is focused on the desired outcomes for the meeting in the context of the overarching goals. Connect the purpose to your agenda. Adults can keep a range of four to seven items in their short-term memory. Limit the agenda to no more than four or five points to avoid triggering stress and overwhelming the client. Check in regularly to confirm that your agenda resonates and check for non-verbal clues that indicate calm, engagement, or stress and mistrust.
Step 3: Inquire and Discover
Purpose: Gain insight into the client’s experiences, expectations, beliefs, circumstances, priorities, and understanding. Our ability to engage in genuine open inquiry demonstrates our emotional intelligence, interpersonal skills, and our authentic concern for our client. It is a core element of effective communication and trust. Through discovery, we and the clients gain understanding. Discovery is often framed as a specific meeting in the client planning process, but actually it is a core element that needs to be incorporated into every meeting. We are never done getting to know our clients or helping them get to know themselves. Discovery allows us to continuously serve the highest goals of our client and deepen the relationship and commitment.
Trust is not “won and done.” We continue to invest in building trust so that clients stay engaged and feel inspired and confident to continue the journey to financial well-being. Even a few minutes of personal inquiry can provide a springboard for getting agreement and commitment to action. As part of your preparation, think about what kinds of discovery questions you may want to include. Our clients’ lives and thoughts are always in flux and changing, just like our own. There is always something to learn that will contribute to our ability to help and advise. Now the client is ready, settled in the executive brain, able to trust, learn, and make better decisions.
Step 4: Guide the Conversation for Further Progress
Purpose: Generate learning, commitments, and momentum. Finally, you are ready to launch into the conversations that you laid out in the agenda. It is tempting to feel that you can finally tell your clients what to know and what to do, but too much “telling” can be threatening to the ego and status. It will trigger the amygdala hijack, where learning and trust are compromised. Resist the temptation to dump quantities of technical knowledge on your client to demonstrate that you are truly the expert. As planners, we do face tension trying to find the right balance between collaborating/asking and advising/telling. The key is to stay connected to what matters to your client and to ask, “What is resonating with you about this topic, Karen?” or, “How is this important to you, John?”
Analogies, metaphors, and stories add value here, as they light up the entire brain and shorten the road to understanding and connection. One example that can help explain financial planning and the process is the jigsaw puzzle analogy:
“Imagine that you are starting to work on a jigsaw puzzle. Once you have dumped the pieces onto the table, what do you do next? Most folks would place the edge pieces, or sort the pieces by color. As your financial planner, I would suggest that we should look at the picture on the top of the box. The picture gives meaning to all those pieces: the green ones are grass; the purple ones are parts of a shirt. Now we have some context for putting the puzzle together. In financial planning, the picture on the box top represents the life our client wants to have right now, later, and years from now. The picture includes the goals, hopes, values, and all they want to have, to do, and to be. The pieces of our planning puzzle are the financial piece—current income, debts, net worth, taxes, savings, investments, etc. Every time we meet, we update the picture on the box top as surely as we update our records and understanding of the pieces. Our job is to help our clients create their picture on the box top by helping them paint that picture; then to make sure they have the pieces they need and that the pieces fit together.”
Neuroscientists tell us that adults are like kindergarteners when they learn something new, meaning, your client’s pace of listening and learning will be slower than your preferred pace of telling. Adults’ attention spans fall between five and 20 minutes. Pause periodically, invite a stretch, and ask a question to stimulate reflection such as, “How is this relevant to your goals, or to your decision?”
Adults learn when they are able to reference their own experience and connect to the immediate relevance of the content. As you close this section of the meeting, restate a few key points and make sure you and your clients have gotten what you need from the discussion. Lead the conversation with purpose toward reaching decisions, getting commitment, clarifying priorities, or identifying next steps.
Step 5: Complete and Close Effectively
Purpose: Solidify learning, identify next steps, and generate positivity and enthusiasm. Adults need time to reflect in order to make meaning out of new information. If we skip reflection, we have no way of assessing what the clients have actually taken from the meeting. Without reflection, the client’s connection to what you have presented will be compromised.
Begin by going back to the client’s agenda. Briefly summarize the purpose of the meeting and the key points and decisions made. Now, give the client the opportunity to reflect on their own key takeaways and help them solidify what was most relevant for them.
Reflection leads to expanded critical thinking, in which you begin to rethink your assumptions and reimagine what is possible. That is the platform for momentum along a better path. You might say, “Take a moment if you will, to reflect on our conversation today. What were your key takeaways? Can you visualize how things will be different? Do you see things differently now?” Be silent and give them a moment. Do not interrupt, correct, or take over.
Other good questions to ask include: “How does this help you with your decision, or understanding, or setting priorities” “Are there any new or persisting concerns?” “Is there anything else?”
If, after listening to your client, you feel the need to clarify or correct their understanding, do so without interrupting or belittling. At this point, acknowledge any accomplishments however small. Success is brain food and encourages momentum and confidence.
Now review the action list. An effective action list is brief and manageable. It will contain no more than two to five items. Each item will truly be actionable. “Open a 401(k) account” is not an actionable item for the client. It’s a recommendation. What is the one next actionable step? It might be a phone call with you to make the changes, so the action item might be to schedule the call.
Go over each item on the action list intentionally. Take your time to confirm agreement and get a commitment. “Let’s review the agreements we made today. You’ve decided that you will meet with the estate attorney to set up the trust we discussed. Would you like us to be on the call to make that appointment? How can we help?” Always ask how you can help.
Close as you began, demonstrating interest in the client’s agenda and enthusiasm in their progress and future. Reiterate the purpose and goals for the client and appreciate them. Offer your encouragement and set the stage for what is next. Thank them warmly, smile, and shake hands again.
Step 6: Follow Through and Follow Up
Purpose: Demonstrate value through timely completions and communication. This final step takes place after the meeting, but it is a core element of building trust and supporting your client. As soon as clients leave your office, they begin to forget all your good work and conversation. They are on to the next event in their lives. Send clients home with a brief summary of key points and send a follow-up letter within two days to remind them of the conversation and decisions. Capture their own words to use in the letter and use a friendly and warm tone. This is another way you demonstrate your value and commitment to the relationship and their progress.
Even if you work alone, hold a debrief meeting immediately after the client meeting to assess what you learned, what went well, and what did not go as well. Identify follow-up tasks; capture the essence of what was accomplished and what needs to happen next. Enter notes in whatever system you use in your firm, but don’t forget to communicate back to the client.
Financial planners’ work is complex. It is a challenge to manage all the aspects of running a business while serving clients well. We want to get work done efficiently and check things off the list. The work of building trust and relationships, however, moves at a slow pace. There are no shortcuts. It requires time, attention, and genuine caring.
We are most comfortable in our role as experts, but equally important is to become master facilitators and communicators. We can integrate best practices, processes, and evidence from the fields of neuroscience, psychology, and adult learning to help us become more effective and consistent in our efforts to form deeper and better relationships.
Exquisite meetings support healthy intentional conversations that lead to trust and results. In essence, the six-step meeting model helps us to do the three things essential for effective communication: (1) do less telling; (2) ask more through open and curious inquiry; and (3) do a better job of listening and acknowledging. This is at the heart of forging trust.
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