Most of us imagine that great communicators are born that way or that it would take a ton of work to improve. The truth is, since most people don't consciously work at getting better, we can quickly surpass our competition by simply practicing one or two new techniques. At the same time, we just might improve client outcomes and make our own lives easier. With that, and in the spirit of debate season, here are five tips for winning debates with your clients.
1) Never play defense. Playing defense often makes one look guilty and erodes trust. If you're a parent who has ever refused your kid candy, you can attest that, in that moment, your child is not in the mood to hear that you're doing this for his or her own good. In that moment, your kid mostly wants to continue having the feelings he or she is having and to know that you will stand by his or her side through those feelings. Similarly, trust is formed when clients learn they can lean on us through the scary times and we'll stand unwavering by their side. When a client is asking for something unfair, take a deep breath and circle back to your client's goals.
2) Focus on your goal. Speaking of goals, in tough conversations, media training expert Brad Phillips suggests imagining that your conversational goal is your lifeboat. The further you let the conversation drift from the goal, the more likely you'll drown. Most likely, your deepest goals in the conversation are to strengthen the client relationship and increase your client's trust in you. In advance of tough conversations, I find it helpful to write my central goal at the top of a yellow pad, and during the conversation, if I find myself adrift, I redirect by saying, “I've gotten a bit off topic. What I'm really hoping we can accomplish today is _________.”
3) Get the other side talking. Unlike a normal debate that is judged by the audience, disagreements with clients are scored by the clients themselves. One interesting reality about people is that we're more apt to change our mind while we're talking than while we're listening. (This is why the Socratic method works so well.) Ask your clients questions that gently nudge them to test their own assumptions. For example, “What is the best, worst and most likely outcome?” Or, “What information are you basing your decision on, and what other information might be useful to have?”
4) Provide social proof or bring in outside data. The reason you see politicians quoting stats and telling stories about the teacher or coal miner is that they can be powerful and memorable. In an individual conversation, the impact of these techniques can be amplified by asking permission first, since giving permission opens the mind to information. As such, ask your client, “Would you be interested in hearing about a family I've worked with for about 20 years now? I think hearing about their situation could help with this decision.” Or, for the more analytical client, “Would you like some additional data that could help inform your decision?”
5) Finally, lean on your integrity. It's very hard to push individuals to do something they feel impinges on their integrity. As such, if you're really struggling in a conversation with a client, a great technique is to simply say, “At the end of the day, I need to look myself in the mirror and know I've worked as hard as possible to help my clients move toward their financial goals. I know this isn't what you're asking from me, and ultimately it's your call what you do, but just know that I would find it very hard to look at myself in the mirror tomorrow if I helped you move to cash reactively [or whatever the situation is].”
Kol Birke is senior vice president, technology strategy and financial behavior specialist at Commonwealth Financial Network.