Listen to Understand: The True Purpose of Client Discovery

In our work with financial planners, we frequently point out that a successful practice is built on getting to know and understand their clients. We also emphasize that this objective can only be met through exploring each client’s unique frame of reference. 

This is so important in client relationship development because each person’s “frames” shape their unique version of “reality.” There are many other terms for this concept (such as perspective, world view, and mode of operation) but the one we like best is “maps” as defined in the book Communication with Clients: A Guide for Financial Professionals: 

As people grow and develop, they store their life experiences and their reactions to those experiences. A person’s experiences are gradually woven into a personal representation of the world. Each person’s package of life experiences is analogous to a fine tapestry. In this book we will refer to these finely woven personal representations as maps.
                                                                              -Charles J. Pulvino, James L Lee, and Cynthia Forman

The authors also emphasize to advisors that maps have a powerful influence on their clients’ financial lives, and should guide the way they way work with them:

Clients’ maps affect how they make decisions; how they use money; how willing or capable they are to take risks, and how they view their personal, business, and financial goals. By understanding your clients’ maps, you have a better basis for communicating with them.

In addition, we believe that the key to unlocking each client’s frame of reference is by employing “empathic listening.” The late Stephen Covey called this the most important communication skill, and devoted a whole chapter in The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People to explaining the benefits of this practice. In a nutshell, he  urges everyone to “seek first to understand, and then to be understood.”

The key to unlocking each client’s frame of reference is by employing empathic listening. Click To Tweet

However, Covey also warns that we can’t develop empathy by learning and applying communication techniques alone—the most important ingredient is our intention: 

In empathic listening, you listen with your ears, but also, and more importantly, listen with your eyes and with your heart. You listen for feeling, for meaning. You listen for behavior. You use your right brain as well as your left. You sense, you intuit, you feel. …You’re listening to understand.

Nonetheless, one of the most challenging tasks for a financial planner is designing an intentional discovery process—one that truly engages clients’ hearts and minds while also providing valuable insights about the frames that shape their values, beliefs, and concerns. The best place to start is by recognizing that each client operates with two minds: the rational mind and the emotional mind.  These two minds do not work independently but continually interact, influencing what an individual thinks, feels, and believes. 

This interplay is shown in the diagram by the area in the middle where the two circles overlap— this represents each client’s version of reality (aka frame of reference). We consider this intersection the “sweet spot” for getting to know and understand your clients. Each person’s version of reality is unique and highly influential in forming perceptions, evaluating choices, and making decisions. Therefore, as a trusted financial professional, it should be your goal to get in touch with each client’s version of reality as quickly and as efficiently as possible. 

Why is this so important? Frames most often operate in what the scientists call the “cognitive unconscious,” or more commonly known as blind spots. Therefore, helping your clients to “see” their frames will be the first step in guiding them to make positive change. In the context of a successful financial planning relationship, the optimal objective is to help your clients be more intentional about making financial decisions that align with their values and support their life goals. 

Keep in mind that this new awareness seldom requires therapy in the traditional sense, but rather occurs when facilitating a process that poses effective questions and foster thoughtful reflection. We believe this is the true purpose of client discovery, and will lead to proactive client conversations and successful long-term client relationships. 


- Carol Anderson,