Don’t should all over your clients

Ever been frustrated because a client didn’t do what they should? Maybe it’s the “should” that’s the problem.

It’s the curse of knowledge, right? You know the importance of taking certain actions to having an effective financial plan. Maybe your client just doesn’t realize the importance and if we emphasize that to them it will motivate action. Not so fast. Maybe you are accidentally setting up a bad dynamic that is getting in your way (and in the client’s way).

“Should” is a loaded word. In transactional analysis, a psychological approach popularized in the 1970s with the book Games People Play, every interaction can take one of three personalities: parent, adult, or child. Without going into all the ins and outs of TA, “should” sets up a parent/child interaction. As in “you should clean your room.” And what do kids do when ordered around by a parent? They resist or rebel.

A more recent development, self-determination theory, suggests that “should” even backfires when we do it to ourselves. The theory, developed by Ed Deci and popularized by Daniel Pink’s book Drive, proposes that there are three drivers of motivation and that autonomy is the most fundamental. Saying “I should” is a way of externalizing the desire – essentially positioning the feeling as if a parent is telling you to do it rather than committing to it yourself. So, telling yourself “I should” almost guarantees you will not. What will? “I want” or “I will.”

How can we use this idea with client? Help them discover they want to accomplish the tasks that will lead to the successful completion of their plan. Here are a few ideas you can try if you are having challenges trying to get clients to follow through on things.

Help the client envision the completed task – Talk about a time in the near future when the current project has been completed. Maybe talk about what comes next. Once that vision is clear and the client is ready to get underway with it, review whatever is still outstanding on the current project and discuss how you will wrap it up together.

Examine the client’s motivation for the outcome – If the current project is something that has been on the client’s mind for a while, talk about how life could be once it is wrapped up. I recently was working with a client who needed to update beneficiary designations on a retirement plan. It was not particularly difficult or time-consuming but required meeting with an attorney to draft a trust that would be a beneficiary. As it turned out, there was a disagreement between the client and their spouse about who should ultimately inherit the money. Moving forward on making a decision was going to require a conversation that was going to be emotional and difficult. One of the ways we helped to move that forward was to ask the client what it would mean to them to have the issue behind them. Getting that stress out of their lives and returning things to normal was attractive enough that it helped everyone get to the table to have the uncomfortable (but temporary) conversation.

Coach the client on writing out their action plan – Rather than instructing “now you need to do this,” invite the client into the process of determining the next steps and timeline. You might ask a question like “so what are our next steps and when would you like to take them?”

If you are struggling with a client who is not following through, you might be tempted to believe them to be disorganized, lazy, or a procrastinator. Handling it a different way that supports the client may be a way to break the logjam.

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