Understanding and Improving the Way-of-Being of a Financial Life Planner

Journal of Financial Planning: March 2019​​



Stephen C. Brody, CFP®, ChFC®, RLP®, EdD., has been a practicing financial life planner for 31 years. He is the creator of Inspired Financial PlanningTM​​, a model for facilitating deeper and more meaningful client conversations. He is an author, financial educator, and mentor to rising financial life planners.


As financial planners and life planners, we face clients whose greatest desire is to go from who am I now, to who can I be. They want new possibilities and perspectives that stem from their inner orientation and core of being. For that to happen, we as the leaders, coaches, and guides of the relationship and process need to “see clearly.” Einstein said, “We see the world not as it is, but as we are.” How we see is referring to our way-of-being. It is the only place we can lead from and defines how we show up within the context of a financial planning engagement.

What Is Way-of-Being

To understand the way-of-being of a financial planner is to understand that what is observed depends on the observer. We are all limited by how we see and observe the world, and as such, the full range of possibilities and solutions lie solely in the eye of the beholder.1

Way-of-being is based on the OAR principle: the Observer you are, determines the Actions you take, and the Results you achieve. Modifying the action won’t alter the result, however changing your way-of-being, or the observer you are, is what ultimately will produce change.

As an example, how many of you have struggled with a problem or situation, and despite attempting several different actions, no workable solutions or options can be found. However, you then tell someone about the issue, and immediately they recommend a fresh approach and action. “Oh, I didn’t see that,” is your reply. This happens because the individual had a different way-of-being; they were able to observe the situation from a different view or perspective. After all, isn’t that what so many clients come to us seeking—a fresh perspective?

As the axiom states, it is a fundamental truth that a blind man cannot guide another blind man—at least one of them must be able to see. The question then becomes: does your way-of-being as a planner and the leader of the financial planning engagement allow for a full spectrum of light, or are you possibly leading with a hazy perspective?

While that may make sense, the question follows: why does way-of-being really matter? The answer is simple: we are charged with the responsibility to facilitate transformation and to assist in producing change for our clients that is in alignment with their values, hopes, and dreams. For that to happen, we need to help generate new possibilities that were previously unavailable or invisible to the client. That only occurs when we are willing to observe, question, and be curious enough to first change the self that we are in order to fully see the client as they are.2 Otherwise, we fall into the trap noted by Alan Sieler, that we as humans are self-referencing; how we view and engage with the world will always be relative to what is important or deeply matters in the world to us.3

The Makeup of Way-of-Being

How we observe and see the world is based on three aspects of our being.

Language. The first area is language. The words that we use are generative in that they produce an effect, action, and an impact on those we are working with. Language also refers to the stories we have learned in life, the narratives we live, and the values we have. For example, phrases such as “a penny saved is a penny earned,” or “money is the root of all evil,” often lead to lessons (functional or dysfunctional) that we absorb and become a part of who we are.4

Emotions and moods. The second aspect of way-of-being is our emotions and moods. Our mood, and the attached emotions, serve as the foundation for how we see a situation, as well as our capacity for action. For example, consider the difference in how you would act at work if you were resentful of your boss, as opposed to being appreciative for the partnership and working relationship you share with your boss. Or, how different would your perspective and view of the world be if you were sad versus joyful? Without a doubt, our emotions and moods affect the observer we are, the actions we take, and our way-of-being.5

Somatic. The final aspect contributing to way-of-being refers to the somatic, or that of the body. Some people move through space quickly and efficiently, resulting in getting things done; however, they might be less available for connection. Others might move more slowly, take their time, and be available to connect with others; but they might not get things done, or they might lose focus on the task because they prioritize relationship. Neither is good or bad, but they lend themselves to certain outcomes.6 How are you as a planner when you’re calm and can sit peacefully, versus jittery and not able to sit still?

Financial Planner Way-of-Being Characteristics

Ultimately, the perspective from which we observe and act in the world determines our possibilities for action and the achievement of desired results. This, in turn, will determine the capacity for possibilities that we create with our clients.

Research that I conducted in 2016 with 25 leading financial life planning practitioners and trainers revealed a list of way-of-being attributes considered to be most important for facilitating deeper and more meaningful conversations that lead to more effective and enjoyable financial life planning engagements.7

Although the list of attributes (see the table above) is abbreviated from the roughly 50 discovered in the research,8 they all loosely fall into five categories: (1) presence; (2) openness; (3) encouraging wonder; (4) being non-judgmental; and (5) planner self-preparation.

Quotes from the research about each area include:

Presence relates to being fully available and in the moment, “showing up ready to be no place else,” and “not being in the minute ahead, or in the minute behind.” The impact of being fully present is, as one of the participants in the research shared, “to be available to not influence what is happening with my own baggage, and to be hyper present for them, so I can hear and see what is happening and ask questions that will help us go deeper and get better answers.”

Openness resides in both the head and the heart. The “essential practice is being willing to see multiple perspectives. It’s the ability to open my heart, so you can open yours, in that we are touched together.” The result of openness is that “we are allowing people to take the time to get to know themselves, and along the way we are there with them. That’s the beauty of it. It’s just a way to be with people that’s different from most other relationships.”

Encourages wonder includes encouraging potential and possibilities by “bringing a sense of possibility,” “inviting [clients] to aspire to their highest purposes,” and being inquisitive. It’s also “arranging your internal environment so that you bring a sense of possibility about the power of the relationship and the person.” “The more you bring the mindset of potential and possibility, the more the opportunity for [clients] to reach whatever pinnacle they aspire to.”

Being non-judgmental is “to hold the person in front of you in high regard no matter what’s happening and no matter what their struggles are.” Also, “if we can be with them in a loving and non-judgmental way, it’s such a gift. It’s a space where they aren’t judged, are loved, and where their future self can come out. Everything is open, and everything is okay.”

Planner self-preparation was described by research participants as: “We can only take others as far as we’ve taken ourselves. It’s the principle that I can only be as connected to you as I am connected to me.” “I think the best way to create that environment is for that environment to reside within myself.” And, “To have … gone through the deeper conversations in my life enables me to have empathy and understanding for what the client is going through, and that experience helps me be a better planner.”

Assessments, Assertions, and Assumptions

Improving your way-of-being begins with the process of working to align who you are as an individual with who you truly are and aspire to be.9This happens by becoming aware of the assessments, assertions, and assumptions that underpin who we are and how they show-up on a daily basis.

First, it’s important to understanding the process of how assessments become assertions, assertions become assumptions, and assumptions lead to the creation of habitual beliefs that are absorbed into our way-of-being. Assessments are how we interpret an event; they can be true or false, grounded or ungrounded. Assertions are those items we state as “being so,” and assumptions are something we believe without proof.

The process is: (1) observe or experience an event; (2) create an assessment by interpreting the event and adding meaning; (3) create an assertion by making a claim about the event (based on the preceding assessment) that you determine to be fact; (4) that assertion becomes an assumption (accepting it is true or certain to happen); (5) draw conclusions and adopt beliefs based on the new assumption; (6) take action (language, emotion, and body) based on new beliefs; and (7) it is now habitual and has been absorbed into your way-of-being.

Here’s a personal, money-related example of that process. Growing up, I observed “rich people” acting in a certain way, namely taking advantage of employees, and at the same time I noticed those same rich people driving luxury cars (No. 1: observe an event). I then made the assessment that all people with luxury cars were rich and treated people badly (No. 2: create an assessment). That assessment led to the assertion that all rich people who drove luxury cars treated others poorly, and no doubt made their money dishonestly (No. 3: create an assertion). That led to the assumption that rich people were not to be trusted (No. 4: create an assumption). From that point forward, I looked at and acted differently toward any drivers of luxury vehicles (Nos. 5, 6, and 7). Fortunately, my early days in financial life planning helped me become aware of the story and experience, leaving me the choice to change my way-of-being relating to people with money and people who drove luxury cars.

How to Improve Your Way-of-Being

With the understanding of assessments, assertions, and assumptions, we can begin working on enhancing our way-of-being. Using the process of inner reflection (see the chart above) and armed with the knowledge that all our results come from prior conversations that taught us how we are (our way-of-being), we can begin to explore those areas where we think it’s the way it is, but in actuality it is merely the way we observe. As an example, consider the planner characteristics of way-of-being cited earlier. If you are not being fully present and are more focused on your own thoughts rather than the clients, consider: how are you being (and why), how are you thinking (and why), what are you doing (and why), and what are the results? Then consider: how do you need to be, think, and act differently?

Another suggestion is to take the planner attributes of way-of-being and turn them into a rating survey, and ask co-workers, family members, and clients to take the survey anonymously. Use the results and the process of inner reflection to begin to make improvements.

In Closing

The ultimate role of a financial planner and life planner is to harness a way-of-being that eliminates all shreds of our own thoughts, beliefs, and ego, thus eliminating what we believe should be happening and allow ourselves to be impacted by the client. From that open, unbiased place, we can then strive to serve them. ​


  1. See the 1992 book, The Tree of Knowledge: The Biological Roots of Human Understanding, by Humberto R. Maturana and Francisco J. Varela.
  2. See “Ontological Coaching,” by Aboodi Shabi at aboodishabi.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/02/Ontological-Coaching-Paper.pdf.
  3. See the chapter on ontological coaching by Alan Sieler in the 2016 book, The SAGE Handbook of Coaching, available at www.newfieldinstitute.com.au/pdf/Sage_Ontological_Coaching_Chapter.pdf.
  4. See Endnote No. 2.
  5. See Being and Time by Martin Heidegger, first published in 1962.
  6. See Endnote No. 2.
  7. See “Understanding the Role of Spirituality in Financial Life Planning​,” by Stephen Brody in the March 2018 issue of the Journal of Financial Planning.
  8. See the author’s 2016 doctoral dissertation, “Assessing Spirituality in Financial Life Planning,” at the Creighton Digital Repository, hdl.handle.net/10504/108224​.
  9. See the 2004 “From Knowledge to Wisdom: Essays on the Crisis in Contemporary Learning​,” by Julio Olalla.​

Learn More

Join author Stephen Brody at FPA Retreat, May 6–9, 2019 in La Jolla, Calif., where he will speak on the topic of the financial planner’s way-of-being. Learn more at FPARetreat.org​.


General Financial Planning Principles
Practice Management