Journal of Financial Planning: January 2014
As a comprehensive financial adviser, it is important to learn techniques for helping couples work through financial differences and engaging in financial conversations more productively.
Although you are not a marital counselor, nor should you be playing that role, coaching couples on engaging in effective money conversations is within your purview. This type of coaching is valuable to your clients, and it also is good for business. If you assist partners in understanding and clarifying their financial goals, values, and dreams for the future, you can design and implement a financial plan and investment strategy that is more likely to be successful in the long term.
A good conflict facilitator embodies several traits. These include being curious, open-minded, nurturing, feeling-focused, a good listener, impartial, committed, and team-oriented. These attributes spell out “conflict,” and they are characteristics you need to embrace if you are to assist couples with financial differences. They also are traits that you should encourage your client couples to practice. Let’s look at each trait in a little more detail:
Curiosity is a great tool for tolerating clients’ difficult feelings and mitigating financial conflicts. It helps you to be in the moment with your clients when the discussion taps into strong emotions, either for you or the clients. It allows you to wonder out loud about each client’s individual perspective and to assist the couple in hearing each other’s viewpoint.
Curiosity allows you to ask thought-provoking questions that help your clients think differently about the situation. When you are truly wondering about something, it is almost impossible to be upset, defensive, or judgmental. Therefore, bringing a healthy dose of curiosity to any meeting where money differences are being discussed is a good thing.
Although similar to curiosity, open-mindedness is more about a state of mind than being inquisitive. To be open-minded involves being receptive to ideas and practicing the Zen principle of beginner’s mind. Each time you have a conversation with a client, you pretend it is your first—that is beginner’s mind. You let go of being an expert and allow the clients to be the experts on themselves. You stay open to all possibilities and to learning new things.
For advisers who are trained to fix problems and provide solutions, developing the skill of beginner’s mind may take time. But fight the urge to offer a tidy solution; there will be time for problem-solving later. Besides, any solution you provide at the start of the conflict resolution process won’t be as viable as one offered at the end. So take a chance and step into your beginner’s mind, and marvel at what you discover about your clients.
When couples engage in effective conflict, they must allow themselves to be vulnerable with each other and you. Therefore, it is vital that as the facilitator, you take a nurturing stance. This means you champion the individuals for taking the risk of sharing financial imperfections and sensitive feelings. It also means you cheer them on when the road to compromise appears endless.
Nurturing can mean holding up a mirror that reflects back how the couple’s words and actions don’t match up or might be perceived by one party. When done in a caring way, this can be an effective tool for moving the couple’s conversation toward a resolution.
Couples often get bogged down in the concrete details of a money fight and fail to identify and talk about the underlying feelings that fuel the conflict. As a facilitator, you need to notice and label the feelings both parties are experiencing and bring these emotions to the surface. Don’t worry; this is not the same thing as being a psychotherapist. You don’t need to understand or dig deep into why they feel the way they do, just point it out.
For example, a couple is arguing about how much to put in their son’s college fund. They may get stuck talking about the amount of money and what they can afford, but fail to look at how putting money away for their child’s future education feels. For one partner, it may feel great. For the other, it may bring up feelings of loss as this partner didn’t get this type of parental financial support. Changing the dollar amount of the allocation is not going to resolve the situation. Instead, identifying the underlying feelings associated with this financial decision and assisting the couple in talking openly about these diverse emotions will.
Being a good listener is an important skill in all aspects of advising clients. It also is imperative when mediating a financial disagreement. Often when partners are caught in a debate, their ability to listen to the other person is diminished. Therefore, you need to be the ears for both partners. Reflect back what each person said. Check in to make sure you understand the essence of their messages. And when in doubt, ask clarifying questions to elicit more precise information. Eventually, couples will be able to use the techniques you modeled in their meetings to begin to listen more effectively to each other.
One of the hardest parts of facilitating a money conflict is staying impartial. It is easy to slip into taking sides, believing one person is more justified in his or her position than the other, or thinking one partner is being unreasonable. Fight these urges because they often result from your own money history and your experience with conflict in your own family. Although these are important factors for you to bring to your own relationships, they do not have a place in your client meetings.
It is OK—and even helpful—if you notice quietly to yourself when you are aligning with one partner over the other. But the real challenge is maintaining neutrality and staying the course. Your clients will find the best solution for themselves when given the space to do so.
As the couple’s financial adviser, you need to be committed to the process of conflict resolution. This commitment demonstrates to the couple that it is worth hanging in there when the conversation gets heated or emotionally trying. It also shows them you care and believe they will get to the other side of this money conflict. While it may take more time than you would like, hanging in there with your client couples builds loyalty and ultimately makes your financial recommendations more applicable and more successful.
When a couple is arguing about money, I often ask them, “Whose team are you on right now?” This allows them to stop and evaluate how their verbal and nonverbal language is either inviting the other person into the conversation or pushing that person away. Being on the same team does not mean always agreeing. But it does translate into both members of the couple working toward a shared goal that will improve the couple’s financial life now and in the future. As a facilitator, notice when the couple is not on the same team, and work as a threesome to figure out how to get back on track toward a shared solution.
One of the trickiest parts of advising couples is helping them identify and resolve money disagreements. Because many couples were brought up without good role models for conflict resolution, your job involves helping them build the skills needed to engage in productive money conversations. To be most effective, examine your own attitudes and feelings about conflict and understand how this mindset may influence your ability to facilitate conversations about financial differences between couples. In the end, you and your clients will be better equipped to identify, manage, and resolve money differences as they arise inside and outside of your office.
Kathleen Burns Kingsbury is a wealth psychology expert, founder of KBK Wealth Connection (kbkwealthconnection.com), and author of several books including How to Give Financial Advice to Women and How to Give Financial Advice to Couples.