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Facilitating Change in Others

How does a person decide to change? How do you get someone to change? The answer to that age-old question would be a major breakthrough—as I’m sure my wife would agree. So, no doubt, would every married person on the planet.

We may be closer to understanding the answer to that question, thanks to the recent work of a number of psychologists. Among them is Dr. Ted Klontz, one of my co-authors of The Financial Wisdom of Ebenezer Scrooge.

In working with Dr. Klontz, one of the most exciting topics I’ve encountered is his research on how people change. What piqued my interest was not only understanding that process, but learning how I could become a better facilitator of change with my clients.

People often come to a financial planner because something in their relationship with money needs to change in some manner. Very few people show up in my office because they simply wake up that day and decide they need a financial planner. Typically, there is some current financial circumstance, painful or joyful, that drives them to my door. Sometimes it is a pending retirement, a birth of a child, or the death of a spouse. For some, it is a need to feel more secure that their money won’t run out but will be there when they need it. Others come to realize that they need more knowledge about how to manage, invest, and save their money. Some folks just need reassurance that they are on the right path to see their dreams unfold. Whatever the situation, the common denominator is that “something needs to change.”

This is especially true with clients who are in need of major financial surgery to correct a problem and set them on the right path. But it is also true in cases where clients may be financially secure, but still consumed with thoughts and beliefs that are causing them stress in their daily life.

For example, perhaps a client continues to lie awake at nights worrying whether he will have enough money, even after I have spent hours presenting charts and graphs to prove there is no reason his money will run out. He still needs to learn to change how he thinks and feels about his money, or there will be no relief. Simply knowing you have “enough” money doesn’t automatically put an end to worrying about it.

For me, then, the question becomes, “How can I help clients change the way they behave around money?” If a couple with children and significant assets have not made wills because they have been unable to agree on important issues, I need to be able to help them come to agreement. I need to know how to guide a client who will have to rely only on social security and government assistance during her final years unless in the near future she is able to change her behavior of chronic overspending. Part of my task is to facilitate necessary changes that will produce actions that are in my clients’ best interests, financially and otherwise.

While my profession does a good job developing our “number-crunching” skills, it does almost nothing to train financial planners in how to facilitate change. We are great at finding problems and identifying solutions. We just have no idea how to successfully get clients from problem to solution.

Most financial planners rely on what we’ve learned from our parents and society as a whole to help people change. Those techniques typically don’t work very well. Dr. Thomas Gordon, the late author of Parent Effectiveness Training, even refers to them as the “dirty dozen.” We’ll explore the dirty dozen in next week’s column.

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