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The Art of Asking Questions

April 10, 2014

Good counseling is more about asking questions than giving answers. The interplay between advisor and client requires a series of questions to develop understanding — on both sides of the table — before launching into financial planning and strategies.

I was vividly reminded of this when an “accidental billionaire” came to our office. Thirty years earlier he had invested in a friend’s business; when he came to see me, his stake was worth more than a billion dollars in publicly traded stock. We started by trading questions.

“Why are you here?” I asked him. “Can you help me save on taxes?” he returned. I told him we could, and had been doing that for clients for a hundred years. But I added, “You have told me what you don’t want done with your money. What is it you do want done with your money?” “I don’t understand,” he said. “What is your wealth for?” I asked him. There was a pause, until he said, “What are my choices?”

Chuckling, I said no client had ever asked me that question before, but I found it quite insightful. Then I told him that in my experience with multi-generational wealth, there was really only one goal: to ensure that everyone lives up to his or her potential, self-actualizing and achieving what I call “freedom from wealth.”

I could have answered his original question with lots of tax-saving menu items, and he could have selected from column A, B or C. But that would have been sales, not counseling. Instead, the discussion triggered a deep conversation about the relationship of wealth, family and happiness.

The right question can also help families articulate their vision for multi-generational wealth — even if they don’t have one yet.

I once met with a family of 10 cousins, one person at a time. Each one said, “We are a very close family.” But when I asked what they meant by that, I found they each had something different in mind. I concluded that while the family members all wanted to be harmonious, they typically communicated so indirectly that no one was building genuinely close relationships. Sitting down with each of them to define “close family” gave me a starting point for talking to the group about what their shared family values were and what they wanted to achieve together.

Sometimes “Why are you asking?” is the most useful — and safest — response to a client question, especially when the query comes out of the blue.

My grandfather’s law partner got a visit from one of his most important clients, who came to ask, “What do you know about John Smith?” My grandfather’s partner responded that John Smith was a scoundrel, not to be trusted, and generally as disreputable as anyone he knew. When he had done with his completely negative assessment, my grandfather’s partner said, “Why are you asking?” The answer was delivered as the client walked out the door: “Because he is about to marry my daughter.” A few seconds later he added, “And you are no longer my lawyer.”