"Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply."
-- Stephen Covey, Principles of Empathic Communication, 7 Habits of Highly Successful People
This is a two-part series on how to thoughtfully and constructively talk about politics with clients. This first article covers why to do it, and how. Next time, I will share insights on how to handle heated conversations.
These days political "conversation" is everywhere, jangling and jarring our nerves and our relationships. We are talking, thinking, and arguing about politics. One of my clients coined it "the conversation," because it's happening at work, home, online, parties, Little League games, schools, religious institutions, supermarket lines, you name it. Even when alone, we are in political dialogue: with social media, obsessive news checking, and even in our dreams. Therapists find clients regularly dreaming about politics and, as a culture, we are having oddly similar dreams. The topic of politics is omnipresent, riveting and emotional: it has taken over.
Yet, conventional wisdom still tells us, Don't talk politics or religion; these topics are too personal, controversial, and divisive. Yet with political conversation everywhere these days, such advice is not helpful or even viable. Telling you to avoid it only leaves you flat-footed and unprepared if and when the conversation comes up.
So let's take this topic head-on. Political conversations can be difficult. But I want to help you learn how to constructively talk politics with clients. Why? So you can meet your clients where they are, and be their go-to advisor, even a leader for them in these times of uncertainty and challenge. And isn't that the overarching goal, after all?
These two articles cover the following topics, and include specific language, approaches and useful client questions to help you navigate these tricky waters.
The client asks about your political views
What are your options when your client asks your views on specific 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:
- The benefits and pitfalls of talking politics, including why avoiding it could be problematic.
- The various underlying meanings political conversations can have, with the key concept being that the most important thing is to understand is the unique meaning the conversation has to each individual client. I'll share ways to be empathic and respond to your client based on the conversation's meaning, rather than on your or your client's political views.
- Handling heated conversations — what to do if the conversation gets out of hand (covered in the next article).
Here's the key takeaway: As long as you stay in your role as financial advisor, talking about politics could be helpful and supportive to your clients, and beneficial to your relationship.
By "stay in your role," I mean this: your role is to listen, connect and develop an effective financial plan with your client during the certainties, and uncertainties, of life. Given this, talking about politics with clients is not about having a debate. It's about listening for what this conversation means to them in terms of both financial advising and their lives.
I'm sure we can all agree, no matter our politics, that we are in a time of uncertainty. Sensitive listening, connection and attuned guidance, rather than debate, is a rarity and would likely be welcome by clients, regardless of political views.
The Benefits and Pitfalls of Talking Politics
While I am not suggesting to initiate political conversations, I am saying that when your clients bring up politics, it is invaluable to be prepared to speak about it in a thoughtful, sensitive, and productive way. You work in a business where you have trusted, close and social relationships with clients. Together, you talk about all kinds of things. In fact, you encourage clients to talk about the most personal of issues. Since politics is the topic on the minds of many clients, it could be awkward or even odd to cut off this ever-present topic.
If you immediately shift away from political conversations, even with the best of intentions, you might in fact be creating just the problems you're trying to avoid:
- You could distance yourself from your clients. They might sense you don't want to discuss something important they have brought up. This could make them feel disconnected, awkward or even embarrassed for raising it. They may begin to wonder how safe it is to bring up other difficult issues, thus creating distance in your overall relationship.
- Clients could lose confidence. You could give the impression you can't handle challenging or uncertain topics. If a topic like politics is off-limits, they may wonder what else you can't handle.
- Pragmatically, you're leaving your clients on their own with worries, concerns, thoughts and ideas. They may feel the need to make decisions without your guidance, especially decisions about their finances that they see connected to the current political environment.
Political conversations where you listen for meaning and connect with your clients can strengthen your relationships, in the present and long-term. If clients bring up politics, this is an opportunity to show you are able and open to talk about whatever is on their mind. You don't need to back off or avoid it. In fact, your willingness to talk politics can show that you continue to be a steady and valuable resource around difficult topics and times.
When you allow a political conversation to unfold, you can listen for the underlying and important meaning that conversation has for your client.
The Underlying Meanings of Political Conversations
An important goal of any client meeting is to understand what is on your client's mind. So in a political conversation, your goal is the same: to listen for what this conversation uniquely means to your client in the context of your advising relationship.
Here are some underlying reasons, beyond political content, why a client would talk about politics:
- Connecting with you. Bringing up politics may be an easy way for the client to connect with you and feel more comfortable. Since it is a common conversation right now, talking politics can play the similar, connecting role of small talk. If this is the case, you may want to talk more lightly about politics, without getting in too deeply. You aren't being superficial; you are actually being attuned to where your client is.
- Indicating another anxiety that your client may not be able to express. Clients often feel anxious before or during a meeting when money is the topic. To deal with this anxiety, your client may switch the topic to politics to lessen the other anxiety. If this happens, try to figure out what issue is making the client anxious so you can address it and help put your client at ease. It might not be politics at all.
- Expressing underlying feelings and issues important to financial advising. Your client may be expressing feelings raised by the current political situation as being related to financial issues. You can clarify and integrate these feelings into effective advising. Think about asking:
- What worries or fears are coming up for you in the current political climate? What are you feeling optimistic about (for yourself, family members, business, insurance, investments, spending, large expenditures, long-term or short-term concerns)?
- How might your financial or personal goals, priorities, or values be impacted by the new political climate?
- In these uncertain times, what specifically are you feeling unsure about? In what ways have you dealt with times of uncertainty or change in the past?
How can I be helpful to you as the political situation evolves and this new era continues? What would be helpful for me to be keeping an eye on for you?
- How are you and your partner (if there is one) seeing things differently? How might this affect your financial planning?
Don't shy away from political conversations. In my field of psychology and your world of financial planning, there is consensus that challenging conversations, handled skillfully, can strengthen relationships between people. Why? Because if done well, both parties listen and better understand each other around important and emotional issues. This is the glue in relationships.
The key to political conversations in financial advising is that you are always listening in order to better and more deeply understand your client; you are not having a political debate. In this way, you can have a political conversation, as you're listening with the intent to understand, rather than the intent to reply (Stephen Covey). And this can be an enormous gift to your clients.
Next time: Handling Heated Political Conversations
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