Having a conversation with another person, a give-and-take, back-and-forth exchange that is engaging and genuine is a beautiful thing. The opposite is just as true: attempting a conversation with a guarded, less-than-transparent person is frustrating, close to impossible.
Successful advisors are students of conversational dynamics. One aspect of the art form is diagnosing a client who may be unable to be transparent with information vital to your work with them. Why? What keeps us from being more self-revelatory? The issue, in my experience, is not so much the client’s locked-up past as it is a feeling that you may not be a safe listener. Other listeners in their past—perhaps way back in their story—abused trust, repeated confidential information, or spread hurtful gossip. In other situations, a listener used the information as if it were special currency exchanged in the marketplace of network relationships.
Are you safe? Can you be trusted with deeply personal, sometimes painful moments in another’s past they share with you? For some, shame and fear are powerful inhibitors that look like rusty locks on thick, weathered doors. There are moments in all our lives, in our distant or more recent past, we have buried so deeply in our souls that they may never come to light – memories that really are better left in memory’s warm earth.
Sometimes, however, a rupture in our family, a promise broken by a spouse, a child’s destructive behavior, a professional embarrassment, or a financial failure overshadow our ability to embrace who we are and what most needs to happen to build a better tomorrow. These kinds of issues may show up as we learn more about our clients. When they do, can you stay in role while helping another tell you what you need to know?
Back to question one: Am I a safe listener? In my three decades of active pastoral work, I learned early on that no clergy person of any faith can wear the mantle of “minister” without confidentiality. The same is true for advisors. What a client shares with us is for our ears only, period. What we hear in the office or over lunch, unless it is criminal, stays with us. At the end of the day – or a career – the only currency we have is trust anchored to our integrity.
When clients know we are safe listeners, they will tell us more and in the telling, reveal more of who are. Conversation upon conversation, their stories bolster our ability to help and support them more. Ground rules are important. Safe listeners never bring up issues with the client in public, even in the presence of their spouse. Safe listeners do not take “stories” home or share the same with colleagues. We must alert ourselves to moments when we are tempted to start a sentence with “You will never believe what I heard today” and never go there.
Second, clients share more with us when they believe we have heard them. Months may pass, but when you say back to a client something she shared with you, she logs that in her mind. Two years ago, a client shared something painful from the past that had influenced almost every financial decision for over 30 years. In a subsequent conversation, I said to my client, “I remember you telling me some time back about your father’s business failure. Might that have an influence on how you are feeling today about this current investment opportunity?” When he realized I had heard him, felt his pain, and honored his past, we quickly transitioned to a better place in our relationship.
Lastly, being safe finds us short on answers but long on understanding. Times are, our best listening merely repeats back to the client what we have heard. If there is something painful “back there,” simply acknowledge that and communicate in a non-judgmental way that, by definition, human beings are mistake-making creatures. The challenge for all of us—advisors and clients alike – is not “what” happened to us, but how we respond to the “what” with a “now what?” Asking that question conveys a love and bond that reinforces the speaker’s feeling of being with a safe person.
What has your experience been? Who are the safe people in your life? Can you name the men and women who feel safe with you? What qualities do they embody? Do you have or could you embrace those same qualities? Being a safe person, listener, friend starts with one relationship, one conversation, one trusted bond that leads to others. Take the first, safe step today and become that safe person for and with the people you serve.