Elevate Trust with Clients and Prospects

Journal of Financial Planning: April 2013


The decision to trust or distrust someone takes just a moment. That moment—whether it is a handshake, a telephone call, or an email—locks in a relationship trajectory that may last for weeks, months, or even a lifetime. Our brains, having evolved over millions of years, are conditioned to make snap judgments in identifying our friends and foes—those people that we trust to act in our best interest as opposed to those who seek to take advantage of us.

For financial planners, it’s vital to understand trust. Trust begins and maintains successful client relationships, and distrust, in some cases, ends them. Here’s what I mean by trust and distrust.

Trust looks like this: I trust that you and I share the same view of reality. I trust that you will have my best interests at heart (you care about me); that you will not cause me to fear you. You will allow me to speak my voice without fear of retribution so I can be open and candid with you and share everything that’s on my mind. (You demonstrate that you are my friend, not my foe.)

Distrust looks like this: You and I see the world very differently. We disagree on what’s important. I feel you have your own interests at heart and could care less about mine. I am afraid to share what’s on my mind for fear you’ll use it against me. (You act like a foe, not a friend.)

It is essential to recognize how these two forces drive so many of our personal interactions and relationships. To understand them in a different way, consider the simple analogy of a door that guards the pathway to our inner self. When we feel trust, we readily open that door, leading to an exchange of thoughts, feelings, and dreams with someone else. When we distrust someone, you can bet we will slam our door as quickly as possible as we begin to defend ourselves.

Neuroscience of Trust

Our level of trust is changed, in many cases, by the way we share information—that is, through conversations. Conversations trigger physical and emotional changes in our brains and bodies through altering the amounts of two of the most powerful hormones that affect social interaction: oxytocin, which enables bonding and collaboration, and testosterone, which enables our aggressive behaviors.

According to Angelika Dimoka, Ph.D., a professor at Temple University, the brain is where trust lives or dies. Distrust takes place in the lower brain (the amygdala and limbic areas) and trust takes place in the higher brain (prefrontal cortex).

In an interview, Bruce S. McEwen, Ph.D., a professor and head of the Laboratory of Neuroendocrinology at The Rockefeller University, told me, “Trust is a phenomenon that is enhanced by oxytocin, which gets people to be socially interactive. Then you have the amygdala, which is the sentinel along with the prefrontal cortex, paying attention to decide if the interaction is going to be rewarding or punishing. If the interaction is punishing we feel more aggressive and untrustful. We have to be wary and we move into protect behaviors.”

If the interaction feels good, you have more oxytocin and you relax. Under stress, testosterone levels are increased. Testosterone works against oxytocin as does cortisol, another powerful hormone that is increased by stress. It’s the balance between these hormones and the neural systems that they interact with that give us the feelings of trust or distrust.

Getting in Front of the Curve

Five characteristics of a conversation bring about a sense of well-being and connectivity with others. As you weave these conversations into your relationship-building activities, you’ll notice a positive shift in the openness and trust among clients and prospects. Focus on elevating the level of trust by:

Transparency: being more open and transparent with clients about the framework of your engagement, your intentions, and the kinds of decisions they will be looking at making helps create a stronger relationship built on trust. When clients don’t know where you are going or your intentions they feel you may have hidden agendas, even if you don’t. Share information and be open to discuss why you do what you do—this turns threats into trust.


- Encourage and have candid conversations that promote transparency and trust around the topics of intentions, financial frameworks, and decisions, and even “how we’re doing” and “what we need to do and not do” to mitigate against risks.

- Provide your honest insights and share your feelings—this actually strengthens the partnering bonds and minimizes the feelings you are out for your own self-interest.

Relationships: focusing on building relationships before working on tasks is paramount and provides a foundation for both handling difficult issues and identifying aspirations. Focus on getting in sync with clients’ needs and aspirations to create strong bonds.


- Decide on the core values that will guide your actions and agreements.

- Set and practice rules of engagement that foster open, candid, and caring conversations.

Understanding: appreciating your clients’ and prospects’ perspectives, points of view, and ways of seeing the world strengthens bonds of trust. Listen and ask more questions. Minimize fighting for one’s point of view and maximize exploring others’ perspectives creating bridges to what’s important to others.


- Make it a practice to ask for and listen to feedback from others who may not agree with your perspective and points of view.

- Ask “what if?” questions that open the doors to new ways of thinking without prejudging the ideas of others that may be different than your own. And really listen!

Shared Success: defining success with others creates a shared meaning about what is and isn’t important for us to work on together. By defining success together, everyone contributes to co-creating the future we believe in. Creating a shared view of reality shapes the future with others.


- Initiate conversations about mutual success and what success looks like for you and your clients.

- Encourage clients to communicate and discuss the shared view of success with others.

Truth-telling: speaking with candor and caring; and when misunderstandings occur, taking risks with courage and facing reality with openness to learn. Working and narrowing the reality gaps with others creates alignment and builds bonds of trust.


- When gaps between your truth and your client’s truth appear, discuss them with the intent to create bridges of understanding.

- Hold and encourage conversations that start with empathy and move toward a common goal or outcome.

If you build a foundation of trust to guide your interactions with clients, prospects, and peers, you’ll realize higher productivity and a sustained focus on achieving extraordinary goals.

Judith E. Glaser is CEO of Benchmark Communications, chairman of the Creating WE Institute (www.creatingwe.com), and author of Creating WE, The DNA of Leadership, and 42 Rules for Creating WE.


Learn More

Take an online trust assessment at tinyurl.com/trustassessment to learn more about the level of trust that exists in your practice, and where you may need to focus on building trust. Then join Judith E. Glaser at FPA Retreat 2013 where she’ll discuss the neuroscience of trust and change. Learn more about FPA Retreat 2013 (May 4–6 in Palm Springs, California) at www.FPARetreat.org.

General Financial Planning Principles