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Source: Millennials and Gen Xers Shaping the Future of Financial Planning by Establishing New Norms with Financial Professionals, aig.gcs-web.com, 8/20

Keri, a longtime client of mine, was at her wit’s end. She’d done everything to convince her son Dylan, a college freshman, to stay in school—but he’d already made up his mind to quit. “I don’t know what to do,” she said, her voice breaking. “Frankly, I’m terrified he’ll turn out like my brother” who, in her words, “never amounted to anything.” Keri paused and slowly looked up at me.

With all the compassion I could muster, I revealed that my freshman year in college wasn’t unlike Dylan’s. My dad wanted me to become a doctor, but I was pursuing pre-med only to appease him. I was frustrated—and failing. Her eyes widened. “What did you do?”

“I admitted to Dad that my passion was in ministry, not medicine. Hearing my words and also my heart, he assured me of his support. Your best response may be to give Dylan permission to find his own way, and assure him that you’ll always be there for him.” Keri exhaled a sigh of relief. On that day, because we’d connected over our stories, our relationship was transformed.

Unfortunately, many financial professionals miss similar opportunities to deepen their client relationships. Like you, they’ll face challenges in life. They may confide in you. How you respond in those moments has the potential to change the trajectory of your relationship. What follows will show how you can prepare for those opportunities when they arise.


  1. Stories Are a Powerful Tool

    When my older siblings were away at college and my younger sister and I were still at home, my dad changed jobs—and money was really tight. Mom constantly clipped coupons and searched for the best deals on groceries. One night we pulled into a drive-through convenience store, where mom knew she could buy eggs for only $0.49 a dozen. From the backseat I blurted out, “Mom, do we always have to buy everything on sale?”

    Boy, did I push a button. Mom, who was normally mild and soft-spoken, spun around and sternly said, “Son, your brother’s and sister’s education is important—and it will be important for you one day. I don’t want to hear another word about that.” And she didn’t.

    As a kid, I thought my mom’s behavior was weird. Looking back, now I realize she was focused on what was most important to her—her children. That’s a story I share with clients who grapple with spending on their children now versus later; whose children may not understand the sacrifices their parents need to make to give them a better future. Sharing a story like this resonates with clients much more than statistics on the skyrocketing cost of higher education. We forget data. We remember stories.

    Facts and Data Alone Aren’t Enough

    We work in a data-driven industry—left brains engaged, always embracing logic. That’s the nature of our business. In many ways, data—numbers, statements, investments, performance—are like black-and-white snapshots on a page. Stories work another way. They are more like paintings than photographs. A painting has color, texture, depth, and, at times exaggeration. As an art critic remarked to me, “A photograph captures a moment in time. A painting takes time, sometimes a lot of time.” My best work has come when I dabble in both media: data and story.

    Put another way, it’s hard to retain all the numbers. Stories, however, have a much longer shelf life. They connect our head with our heart. They humanize information. Not only is a good story engaging, it fosters credibility and can spark action. When you share a story from your life experience, you’re saying, I’ve been there. I can relate to what you’re experiencing. Here’s how I handled it and what I learned. A story lets your client know they’re not alone.

    To do our job well, we collect all kinds of information from our clients. Knowing their values, their goals, and even their anxieties is critical. But to silence our story, what we have learned and how we have met both success and failure, leaves a powerful tool unused, even ignored. Being aware of key turning-point moments in my life has enabled me to empathize with clients, allowing me to lean in when I sensed pain, disappointment, and loss. Sharing just one personal experience has helped me forge new and lasting bonds that those snapshots of data, as important as they are, never capture.

  2. Embrace Your Turning-Point Stories

    There’s an expectation that financial professionals should be rational and composed at all times. Many couldn’t imagine letting their guard down and sharing a personal story, for fear of detracting from their professional image by exposing a weakness. But there can be a downside to maintaining a purely professional image—it can create a barrier to deeper connection with our clients. We can remove that barrier when we combine our financial expertise with a personal, turning-point story.

    My First Turning-Point Came After Contracting Polio as a Toddler

    That horrific event changed everything, affecting every aspect of my life for more than 67 years. The road to playing sports ended. Oh, I played baseball and basketball with my childhood friends. I could hit a baseball—I mean really hit the ball! But when it came to running to first base, I was thrown out almost every time. There were many nights when I cried my boyish soul to sleep. But the limp was still there; nothing changed. Wise parents never told me I was handicapped. Instead, they taught me to keep moving forward with polio instead of focusing solely on the obstacles. When I did, other doors began to open. I became a pianist, a minister, a financial professional, and coach.

    In my advisory work, I’ve shared my 67-year journey with polio, revealing what it’s done to my body. Though my limitations are few, I’ve come to accept the reality that a limp defines every step I take. I have a limp, but the limp doesn’t have me. Figuratively speaking, every client with whom we work has a “limp” too. Let me explain:

    Over many years, Don and Sue became successful investors, but not without early challenges. When we began working together, Don had to overcome a parental message he heard repeatedly as a child. His dad, who grew up during the Great Depression, would say, “Don’t invest in the stock market. You’ll lose everything!” He had to tame that message—his limp—to grow his wealth over many market cycles. In both our lives, our limp never went away. I still waddle as I walk; Don loved his dad yet still hears his voice. But sharing my story was a key factor in drawing the two of us into a closer, more meaningful relationship.

    You Have Impactful Stories to Share With Clients, Too

    To help you develop those stories, I’ve created a workbook based on this white paper. Embracing your first turning-point story will require you to ask yourself some hard questions. Below are just a few examples from the guide:

    • What is your first memory about money?
    • How did your family’s financial status influence your upbringing and/or beliefs about money?
    • Did you ever experience a career setback or change?
    • Have you or a loved one experienced a life-changing diagnosis, physical or mental?

    Answering questions like these won’t be easy. Some will likely feel intimidating. So often we’d prefer to hide, or not even think about, the messier, more painful events in our lives. They can make us feel weak, embarrassed, or even ashamed. Refuse to let fear or discomfort keep you from exploring these questions. The answers, however, can help you craft a story or stories that will deeply connect with your clients. Here are the four components of an impactful story. Keep them in mind as you go through the exercises and develop a story. I’ve added key elements of my story to help you see how to apply the components.

    life event birthday What happened (e.g., I was diagnosed with polio)
    Parking Symbol What you learned (e.g., There were things I couldn’t physically do; I was frustrated)
    walking someone to a car How you responded and what you did (e.g., I found things I could do, such as play the piano)
    speech bubbles What difference it made (e.g., I grew stronger in my ability to overcome obstacles; carved new paths for myself)

    Plan on spending a bit of time on the guide. It’s not something you should rush to complete. Your primary goal is to craft one, two, or three stories. Over time, more will emerge. Some stories may require less remembering and reflecting, while others may call for more contemplation. Providing thoughtful, candid answers will add authenticity both to the story and to you, the storyteller.

    Some of My Best Stories Seem to Be About My Worst Decisions

    Oftentimes stories that resonate most with clients involve admitting my own mistakes: buying cars I couldn’t afford, taking trips on credit cards that I couldn’t pay, and trying to keep up with “the Joneses,” who didn’t care what kind of car I drove or how fancy my home furnishings were anyway. It’s not always easy to disclose these things—especially given my profession. But many clients can relate to these temptations and some of the choices I’ve made, and realize that they, too, can learn from them and move forward.

    Now that you know how to develop a story or two, how do you use them?

  3. Share a Story

    When a client confides in you about a personal challenge, there are several ways we might respond. If you’re caught off guard, you could freeze and try to turn the conversation back to business. Or, in haste, it’s possible to blurt out the well-intended but Pollyannaish “Everything’s going to work out fine.” Or you may have the urge to offer advice on how to “fix” it. Resist that urge. Your client may not be looking for a solution—and you may not have one. They may just need to share what’s on their mind.

    At this point, it’s important to do more listening and asking than telling.1 Avoid the pressure to have an immediate response. Instead, pause and allow the client to express themselves completely. Doing so lets the client know they are being heard. Next, gently inquire by asking a question—with the intent to listen. One question, chosen well, gives your client permission to go on. Below are some examples.

    • What happened?
    • What do you think might have caused that?
    • What were you feeling?
    • What happened after that?
    • What did you do (or want to do)?
    • How did that work out for you?
    • What else have you tried so far?
    • How did you get through that?

    Questions such as these invite clients to open up, and they convey your genuine interest in understanding their story. Typically, after they’ve answered one or two follow-up questions and have finished expressing their thoughts and feelings, they’ll pause and wait for your response. Let that pause be your friend! It’s here—the pregnant pause and what follows—where you can share an insight from your life or even a client you serve (changing the name and circumstances to protect confidentiality). Here are a few transition statements you might use.

    • “No two experiences are alike, but I have seen something similar before. I’d like to share that with you because I think it may be helpful.”
    • “This reminds me of a time when…”
    • “May I share a story with you?”

    When you finish sharing your story, ask, “As you were listening, I sensed a connection. Can you tell me about that?” Or, “It seems life dishes out so many similar challenges, doesn’t it?” The handful of minutes that follow can be transformative. It’s here that both stories merge. The client sees him or herself in both their story and yours. Rather than you telling what should or needs to be done, the client will often self-discover a new and better way. They own the decision and what follows. You gain an unspoken invitation to step into that future with them. A story—theirs and yours—made the magic happen!

Source: Millennials and Gen Xers Shaping the Future of Financial Planning by Establishing New Norms with Financial Professionals, aig.gcs-web.com, 8/20


“If My Stories Aren’t the Same as Theirs, How Can I Be of Any Help?”

You may not have had the same experience, emotions, or circumstances in your own journey that your clients have. But they don’t have to be the same. In fact, we need to be careful about pretending or assuming we know exactly what they’re experiencing. Our job is to listen, validate feelings, and assure the client of our support. In a powerful way, we are not men and women who parachute into a client’s life from time to time, but a fellow traveler with them throughout their life’s journey.

Still, there will surely be moments when you can personally relate to some aspect of a client’s situation. It’s often those times that present the best opportunities to take your relationship to a new and stronger place. By sharing a personal story, you create an “uncommon” common ground with your clients that’s both powerful and empowering.


Remember These Three Things about Sharing Stories

First, stories are a powerful connection tool that can transform your client relationships, but the value of our stories is frequently overlooked. Second, crafting a story will require staring down your past and asking yourself hard questions. This will take some time and it won’t be easy, but the stories you’ll have to share will make it worthwhile. Third, integrating your stories into client conversations is all about timing—and listening. Resist the urge to jump in too soon, to talk more than you listen, or try to fix things.


I Look Back on That Tough Conversation Keri and I Had a Few Years Ago, Grateful That Our Stories Connected

Keri agreed to let Dylan choose his own path. After leaving college, he found his way forward. He’s independent, employed, and learning more about himself. Keri and her new husband Don have since transferred a $2.5 million 401(k) to our practice, and they’ve trusted us to work with their estate attorney and CPA to help meet their blended family’s needs in the years to come. But Keri and her family aren’t just clients—the bonds of friendship we formed then are very much alive today.

About The Author
Tim Owings

Tim is the founder of TL Owings & Associates, LLC and author of Cadence of Care. With more than 40 years of experience as an ordained minister and financial professional, Tim teaches financial professionals how stories from their lives and the lives of their clients can transform their relationships and their practice.

Next Steps

1 Download “The Power of Stories: How sharing experiences transforms client relationships.” Identify two to three of your turning points using the checklists on pages 3-4.
2 On page 6, use the four key components template to begin crafting your first story
3 Practice telling your first story to a friend or colleague for their feedback


More on The Power of Stories >


1Edgar H. and Peter A. Schein, Humble Inquiry: The Gentle Art of Asking Instead of Telling, Second Edition (Oakland: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2021).
The views and opinions expressed herein are those of the author, who is not affiliated with Hartford Funds.




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