Talking Politics with Clients: Handling Heated Conversations

Talking Politics with Clients: Handling Heated Conversations

Time to Read: 5 Min

Barbara Nusbaum

This is the second article of a series on how to thoughtfully and constructively talk about politics with clients. The first article covered why to do it, and how. In this article, I share insights on how to handle political conversations and what to do if they get heated.

A real-life situation: an advisor and client are eating together in their favorite restaurant, deep in conversation about the election. They've known each other for years and support the same candidate. The conversation flows easily, as per usual.

But they then stumble onto a social policy issue and stop: surprisingly they strongly disagree. What happens next? The client stiffens; the advisor, not knowing what to do, makes an uncomfortable joke; the lunch turns awkward. The advisor can't get things back on track, and they end lunch with this political difference and new tension hanging in the air. After lunch the advisor worries: was damage done to this close relationship? What should or could the advisor have done in this tough moment?

Talking politics with clients can feel like the third rail. It can be tough and nerve-racking. Yet political conversations are close to inevitable these days. In advisory relationships, thorny life issues come up all the time. You address difficult, anxiety-filled topics like poorly performing investments, deaths of loved ones and tough family conflicts. Now, politics is another difficult issue we need to address.

I'm going to help you think about how to handle political conversations and what to do if they become heated, so your relationship will not just survive, it'll also possibly get stronger.

Here are specific approaches:

The client asks about your political views

What are your options when your client asks your views on speci fic candidates or issues?

How you handle this is based on what you know of your client, your relationship, and what you are comfortable sharing. You'll likely rely on your intuition in the moment to decide what to do, but remember intuition is simply lightning-fast decision-making based on your well-honed knowledge and experience. Thinking through options ahead of time will hone your intuition so you can ably manage a situation in the moment. Here are three ways you can go:

1. You decide you are comfortable sharing your viewpoints.

Doing so can be bonding and can deepen your authentic connection, but keep two things in mind. Yes, you are sharing your thoughts, but remember in your role as financial advisor your primary focus is to listen and connect to your client, not have a political debate. Second, political views and feelings are nuanced. Even if you tilt in the same direction, you may differ on specific issues (and still more specifics within those issues), intensity of feeling, or approach. Political perspectives come in every shade of grey.

In my example at the beginning of this article, after the advisor and client were surprised by their differing viewpoints, the advisor followed up. They talked about their perspectives and learned more about each another in a mutually respectful conversation. In doing this, they developed greater confidence in having challenging conversations: a good thing in an advisory relationship.

2. You decide you're not comfortable sharing your political viewpoints.

If you don't feel comfortable sharing your views, how do you respond without your client feeling dismissed or embarrassed about bringing up politics? Speaking authentically is often the way to go. Get clear in your own mind on why you don't want to discuss your viewpoints and share this honestly with your client. Here are ways you might say this:

"I appreciate your asking about my perspective, and very much agree these issues are important. I've personally found these conversations can create distance between some clients and me. I value our relationship and don't want to risk changing it."

"I know and hear how important these political issues are, and I respect that. Can you tell me more about what these issues mean to you?
You can then ask more questions like the ones suggested in Part I of this series.

"Tell me more about your thoughts on this issue/politics. I'd like to find insights and ideas for financial advising that support your perspective, particularly in this political climate and time of change and uncertainty."

3. It's clear you and your client differ on politics.

It may become clear that your and your client's politics don't match. Instead of ignoring the difference, you can put into words that the difference exists, but it's not a problem for your relationship. Open acknowledgement of difference can cut tension, show you are not afraid of difference, demonstrate your respect for your client's views, and make clear you will stay connected regardless.

Here are some ways to talk about differences:

"I think we (may) see things differently, and that's fine and expected. What I'm most interested in are your thoughts and feelings so I can be helpful and supportive." You are making clear that you are most interested in what your client thinks, and in prioritizing him or her over political views.

"While we disagree on this topic that is clearly important to us both, we can have this difference and still have a lot in common." If it feels right, you can bring up experiences you have shared or topics you have in common. In this way, you validate the importance of the topic, while communicating that your relationship stands strong, with both commonalities and differences.

Talking politics with clients can feel like the third rail. It can be tough and nerve-racking. Yet political conversations are close to inevitable these days.

If the conversation gets heated

Since politics brings up intense feelings, the conversation could easily get heated. From a pragmatic perspective, I suggest preparing for this possibility ahead of time. Tim Sanders, my co-panelist for Hartford Funds Human-centric Investing, advises to over-prepare for meetings. In this highly politicized era, I propose that over-preparing must include thinking about political conversations and what to do if they get heated.

Here are strategies to prepare yourself emotionally and psychologically, so you don't find yourself off balance in the middle of a challenging conversation.

  1. Educate yourself on having political conversations in financial advising. Reading these articles is a good start and you can read others. Speak to colleagues about political conversations they've had with clients, including those that have, and have not, gone well. This way, you can figure out what fits you best.
  2. Practice the questions offered in the previous article with others, so you have them at your fingertips and have also practiced follow-up responses.
  3. Remember that effective financial advising is about your client's emotions, thoughts, and values, in addition to products, investments and numbers. Keeping this mindset front and center gives you the rationale for having political conversations, even when things get challenging.
  4. Be curious about your own political triggers: your more emotional issues and your physiological responses to them (we all have them). With greater awareness, you can better manage your own emotions and focus on your client. Here are effective strategies:
    • Write down the political issues that are most emotional for you. Writing will help increase your awareness of the issues that trigger you the most when they arise with clients.
    • Learn your physiological responses to intensifying emotions.
    • Does your voice go up or get louder? Do you speak faster?
    • Does your chest, throat or jaw tighten?
    • Do you start to fidget?
    • Does your face get hot?
    • Do you lose eye contact?
    These are common ways our bodies register increased emotion. Awareness of your particular responses will help bring down your intensity so you can think more clearly. Additionally, when you notice these responses, take a few deep breaths to quickly de-escalate your feelings and focus on your client.
  5. Finally, carry into the conversation these two self-reminders. These conversations are challenging for everyone; it's normal to struggle with them. And secondly, your role as advisor, given political and all other challenging issues, is the same: to listen and figure out how to support your client, rather than to debate.

De-escalating in a constructive, productive way

But if the temperature escalates, how do you bring it back down? Empathy is the key.

  • The first step is empathy: focus on understanding and validating your client. That is, pull back from making your point, and reflect your client's perspectives and feelings back to him or her. Ask if you understand correctly, and affirm these issues are important. Being an active listener will go a long way towards reconnecting you and your client. (See my previous article on empathy)
  • Offer to redirect the conversation: "These issues are important to both of us, and I value that, but I value our relationship most. My thought is to go back to the areas we feel in sync and work on the issues where I can be most helpful. We could get back to this another time, if we want to."
  • Finally, and importantly, check in with your clients as to how they feel: "How does this sound to you?" And be ready and open to listen actively and respond to what they say.

Key Takeaways

Talking to clients about politics is tough but inevitable these days. Keeping your focus on your client, not the debate, is key.

Learning to handle political conversations, even when heated, is valuable and doable. It's valuable, because it can strengthen your relationship, and it's doable, particularly when you plan for it ahead of time.

If the conversation gets heated, empathy and knowing your political triggers go a long way to de-escalating and reconnecting with your client.

Clients already value your input on difficult issues in life: children, aging, death, family conflicts, and all the related emotions. You are experienced at discussing difficult, anxiety-filled topics, in an empathic, open and authentic way. In political conversations, if you use the very same skills, your clients will likely be greatly appreciative.

Dr. Barbara Nusbaum

Clinical Psychologist, Ph.D., expert and speaker, specializing in the intersection of money, psychology and life. Dr. Nusbaum works with individuals, families and organizations on the impact of the emotional/psychological side of money.

She has appeared as an expert for The New York Times, CBS News, Forbes, The Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg, Money Magazine, and DailyWorth.

View all articles by Barbara »

The views and opinions expressed herein are those of the author, who is not affiliated with Hartford Funds. The information contained herein should not be construed as investment advice or a recommendation of any product or service nor should it be relied upon to, replace the advice of an investor's own professional legal, tax and financial advisors. Hartford Funds Distributors, LLC.


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