How to Counsel Clients Without Shaming ThemChia-Li Chien, Ph.D., CFP®, PMP®, CPBC
Chia-Li Chien, Ph.D., CFP®, PMP®, Dec. 1, 2020
Many of us were taught not to talk about money when growing up. But the more we make, the more we need to seek help in accumulating wealth to achieve financial independence in life. A reticence to discuss finances makes it difficult for financial planning advisors to help clients, particularly those who experience guilt around spending and/or insufficient savings. The verbal and nonverbal language the advisor uses can make a client 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 with Dr. Ekta Kumar, a clinical psychologist who specializes in working with LGBTQIA+ individuals and POC and is the Director of Diversity and Inclusion Initiatives for the Department of Psychiatry at USC. She has a variety of training and experience providing therapy, outreach/prevention programming, and facilitation of difficult dialogue related to trauma and diversity.
My first question to Dr. Kumar was, what is shame? She 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 advisor 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 advisor may not even be aware of client shaming and needs to be sensitive to client behavior during a session. If the client seems “checked out” during a session, if the advisor is working harder than the client, if the client doesn’t come back, the advisor should take a look at the areas of potential breakdown during the interaction. Also, advisors should monitor their own levels of discomfort during the session and adjust accordingly.
She pointed out that in the current environment where many consulting sessions take place on Zoom, advisors have the opportunity to see themselves as the client sees them and can correct any body language that may appear judgmental. Advisors should continue corrections to any negative actions and expressions when face-to-face sessions are resumed. Also, advisors may want to exaggerate intentional expressions and gestures during virtual sessions or the intention may be lost due to the medium being used. Eye contact is important, too.
Given that an advisor’s financial planning process starts with gathering information from the client, I asked how advisors can encourage clients to talk without shaming them. Suppose a client says they are not good at saving money or that they spend too much. How can the advisor respond to the client in a neutral way? Dr. Kumar recommended empathy. We have all struggled at one time or another with finance. Finance is hard. She suggests trying to show the client that financial success is the result of skill, and not meeting financial goals doesn’t necessarily result from character flaws. She advises sharing your own vulnerability because that is something that we all have in common.
Dr. Kumar pointed out that certain individuals may stimulate biases in the advisor. I recalled an incident when I was informally advising my mother in law about when to take Social Security. The current retirement planning rule of thumb is for individuals to postpone Social Security if possible, at least until full retirement age, because it results in a larger monthly benefit. I had some preconceived notions about why she wanted to take the benefit sooner but did not pursue her actual reasons. My bias about her culture and my relationship to her affected my interaction with her. Dr. Kumar commented that many factors influence a person’s financial behavior, including culture, personal obligations, and mental health. The advisor should ask neutral questions to determine the client’s priorities to help the client arrive at a solution.
She continued, suggesting that to encourage clients to discuss their finances, offer empathy before the intervention. For example, clients who have strong family ties may send money home to the detriment of their personal situation. An empathetic response from the advisor might be, “I admire your commitment to your family.” Then ask if there might be other options. Also, be aware of possible negative connotations for the client around banks and savings. The advisor needs to listen deeply and well to the client’s passions and life goals, respond with support, then with thoughtful language, offer financial options. If there is a mismatch of values between the client’s financial behavior and proven strategies, see if some middle ground can be found.
Regarding my mother-in-law, I later discovered that her reasoning for collecting Social Security at an earlier age than recommended was to offset the cost of health insurance that, being retired, she was now burdened with. I allowed my biases to inhibit pursuing her reasoning.
Shaming, even though unintentional, will stand in the way of developing a warm empathetic relationship based on trust, a singularly important aspect of the financial planning client-advisor 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 of language, be sensitive to self-care.
- Do not ask “why” questions. Probe with additional questions 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.