Financial Advisors: How To Talk To Clients About Politics

The last time I put a presidential campaign sign in my front yard was 2004. We lived on a small court, and we had just moved in that September. One of our neighbors was another young couple, but the other two families had lived there since the houses were built in 1960.

My political convictions were (and are) important to me, but one day, as I pulled into the court and saw the sign, it struck me that while it may have been a bridge to one neighbor, it could almost certainly be a stumbling block for another. I hadn’t even met all my neighbors in person yet—did I really want my vote to be the first impression I made?

I pulled out the sign, and I haven’t raised another since.

Politics sign
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Sometimes I have to pinch myself, because as a financial advisor, my job is to meet people, learn about what’s most important to them, help them articulate those values as intentions and goals, and then help create and follow a plan designed to reach them. What a gig, and what a privilege!

One of the greatest gifts of my 20 years and counting in the business is the wide variety of people with whom I’ve been able to engage. While you might tend to think that there is a stereotypical financial advisory client, my experience has been anything but uniform. From teaching college students—one of the best educations I’ve ever received—to advising individuals and families, it’s the striking differences between people that have left an indelible mark on me.

Sure, aside from the college students, they all had something in common—they were blessed with means sufficient enough to hire someone to help in its stewardship—but that’s where the similarities stopped. And their political proclivities have ranged across a vast continuum.

Especially over the last decade, and increasingly over the past four years, I’ve also seen these political opinions manifest as convictions so gripping that I’d describe them as visceral. People seem increasingly concerned with the potential for politics to shape their lives externally, and these concerns are so deeply internalized that I can see, hear and feel the weight of them in the faces and voices of my clients.

These feelings seem just as strong across the political spectrum. It’s not uncommon for us, as advisors, to have a conversation with someone who is convinced that their livelihood is doomed and the very fate of our nation sealed if so-and-so wins only to find, in the very next conversation, that another person is convinced of something equally cataclysmic if such-and-such wins.

So what are we advisors supposed to do? How do we navigate these intense emotions with our clients? And how should we navigate the opinions we hold, knowing that our convictions are rarely, if ever, going to be entirely aligned with those of our clients?

1. Know your role.

Please note I did not invoke the ancient Greek aphorism “Know thyself” here. Knowing thyself is, of course, good and important, regardless of your occupation, and perhaps especially for people in the people business, like financial advisors. But if you’ve chosen to be a financial advisor—a true fiduciary financial advisor—you’ve taken on a duty to prioritize your clients’ best interest. That means you’ve also chosen to dampen, and when appropriate mute, your own opinions and prioritize those of your clients.

Our job as financial advisors isn’t to impose our values and goals and plans on our clients, but to explore their values and goals in pursuit of unique financial plans of their inspiration and creation. Sharing our opinions—or worse yet, trying to convince our clients of the worth of those opinions and the fallacy of their own—simply isn’t part of our job, and it’s possible, if not likely, that doing so will hinder our abilities as an advisor.

2. Know your client.

Do you remember the directive to KYC—Know Your Client—that showed up in the regulatory exams many of us have taken as advisors? Well, it’s always a good time to exercise this dictate, especially when clients raise their political opinions and concerns. Why especially? Because however they appear, political opinions tend to be driven by emotions, and emotions tend to illustrate motivations, and motivations are what drive successful financial plans.

It’s not the what of the opinion that matters to us so much as the why. Instead of hearing a phrase or slogan that might lead you to stereotype your client, see the interaction as an opportunity get beneath the words and find the feelings.

“Well, I didn’t get into this business because I was interested in discussing anyone’s feelings!” an advisor might be inclined to think. But whether you like it or not, what we’ve learned from the field of behavioral economics and science is that feelings and emotions are what drive financial decisions—more so than any numerical calculation or spreadsheet.

We have a choice, therefore, to ignore and avoid feelings and emotions in our work or to become more skilled at exploring and navigating them. And considering the increasing commoditization of the quantitative elements of our work, mastering the qualitative arts is likely also good business.

We can’t just be financial planners anymore—we need to be financial life planners.

What does this look like in practice? It involves the institutionalization of the following:

·     Exploring—active listening, repeating and reframing what you’ve heard

·     Silence—leaving enough space to allow clients to follow up on their own thoughts, even before asking questions

·     Empathizing—putting yourself in their shoes

·     Questioning—the more open-ended, the better

·     Validating—acknowledging and affirming

·     Connecting—emotions to intentions to plans

·     Confirming—clarifying, using their words

·     Reminding—refamiliarizing people who are prone to forgetting and changing

What doesn’t it look like? You know the big ones—talking, telling, lecturing, shaming. But you also have to be careful of a few other tendencies that are more common among advisors and seemingly less dangerous. Teaching, for instance, is often a one-way street, and while there are always times for educating with clients, it’s better done in response to expressed curiosity. Consulting is a transaction of knowledge and experience to the ignorant, whereas good advising is more collaborative and less condescending.

Simply put, there needs to be less of us and more of them.

As you can see, these principles apply to a lot more in our work with clients than just their political beliefs, but hopefully they also provide a roadmap for effectively navigating the potentially dangerous waters of partisanship.

Personally, I’ve tried to develop a couple habits to help me avoid a shipwreck:

I don’t talk about politics online and in social media. I know many phenomenal advisors who do, and I cast no judgement whatsoever on their decisions. For some segment of advisors, this may actually be a business decision, a way to engage a target niche client base. Regardless, one can certainly make the case that “we’re all adults here” and that we should be able to separate our business dealings from our personal opinions and expect that clients are capable of doing the same. I’ve just yet to see anyone convince anyone else of anything about any topic in the online arena, and to me, no tweet or post is worth creating relational dissonance.

It may, however, be easier to avoid offending than it is to avoid being offended in the emotionally charged landscape of conversation topics, especially right now. So how do I navigate it when a client shares something that I don’t agree with? First, I’ll try to find common ground, to connect to a shared belief, and this need not take place aloud. When that’s not possible, when I’m tempted to change my opinion of a client based on an opinion of theirs I find disagreeable, I’ll remind myself of something else that I admire about them, and when possible, I’ll share that affirmation.

We’ve chosen a vocational path—to be a guide, not a hero; to be a board member, not the boss; to be an amplifier, not the instrument; to be a coach, not the star. And when we know our role, it positions us to do a much better job of knowing and serving our clients—especially in the midst of, and following, a contentious election cycle.

Zero Impact: Presidential Politics And Your Finances

What near-term impact will the presidential election results have on our personal finances? None—or almost none.

The impact of one president chosen over another is romanticized by both parties to convince us of the urgency inherent in our choice.  This is especially true in an election cycle that features the economy as its foremost issue at hand.  And while I seek not to minimize the importance of our individual votes for president, a recent and historical view provides us with the evidence necessary to conclude that the impact of our commander in chief on our personal bottom line is nominal, at best.

So if you were personally rooting for Governor Romney and fear that President Obama’s reelection spells doom for your finances in 2012, I’d like to allay those fears.  Furthermore, if you were a supporter of Obama’s and feel a certain level of financial peace post-election, I might suggest it is unfounded.

The reason presidential elections have little impact on our bottom line is two-fold: First, whatever pet projects the top dog manages to push through are typically phased-in over many years.  “Obamacare” is an excellent example of that.  Although President Obama’s legacy project has long been passed, it really won’t begin to impact our wallets (or those of our employers) in a meaningful way until 2014.  Second, it is really Congress—the House and Senate—that makes change happen that impacts our lives (for better and for worse).

Camel-Back-Breaking Straws

So the presidential election results themselves have very little impact on our personal financial plan, but the fact that the election is simply over means a great deal, especially over the next few months.  There are a few camel-back-breaking straws lingering that are expected to develop further now that the world is no longer hypnotized by our presidential election.

Europe can go back to slipping into a continental depression, a slow-bleed that alone could send the remainder of the planet back into a recession.  Many military and geo-political strategists predict a spike in the middle-east conflict du jour (most notably, the Israeli/Iranian struggle, but also further destabilization in Syria).  But the big issue that sits right on our doorstep is the ominous “fiscal cliff.”  This is not an imagined crisis.  NOT arriving at a compromise before we celebrate the end of 2012 will result in a host of personal, corporate and governmental financial time bombs going off while we’re watching football and over-eating on New Year’s Day.  (Yes, it also deserves mention that there are some bright signs peaking through the economic clouds that portend a rosier near future of growth in employment and housing, but the grimmer probability also appears to be the greater.)

What, then, can you do now that your civic duty is done?  More than you would think, especially as the haze of political punditry and spin still clouds our vision, attempting to convince us that our futures are determined by those running, winning and losing.  Yes, political self-interest and acrimony seems to have crippled the leaders we pay to govern, but WE are still—and will always be—the primary determinant of our personal financial success.  And whether you are unemployed or a multi-millionaire, effective cash flow management is still—and will always be—the leading indicator of your future prosperity.  Whether your country, state or municipality is blue or red, your income less your expenses is still your profit, and your assets minus your liabilities is still your net worth.

Now that the election is behind us, let’s control what we can, and disregard what we can’t.