When Saying “Stop It!” Doesn’t Work

Recognizing instinctual, subconscious, and engrained habits or responses is a challenging, but important, first step on the path to modifying one’s behavior for more desired outcomes. A person cannot consciously choose to change a behavior unless they become aware of 1) what they are doing, and 2) how and/or why it was formed in the first place. What purpose was the behavior serving? Equipped with this awareness, the individual can then mindfully evaluate whether the behavior is serving them well in their current circumstances or if modifications would be helpful.

Although client’s might not initially recognize the need for changing their behaviors, advisors understand that the benefits of doing so could include a less reactionary and potentially damaging response to an unexpected event, better coping skills while working through transitions, increasing one’s emotional resilience (not to mention financial resilience), and improving the ability to reach personal goals more quickly.

So, now you might be asking, “How in the heck do I help clients’ move these engrained reactions, habits, and behaviors from the subconscious to the conscious brain? Can’t I just tell them what they are doing wrong and say, “Stop it!”?”  Ha! You crack me up. Our very human urge to quickly jump to the solution and simply “fix” the problem is sure to backfire.

Whether you’re looking at studies in adult development, self-determination, motivation, or behavior change, what the sciences tell us, time and time again, is that people do not like being told what to do even when requested. By planting your flag firmly in the camp of a particular behavior change, the client will begin to both consciously and subconsciously defend the pros of maintaining the status quo. Frankly, it’s the subconscious pros that can become the biggest obstacle — think self-identity issues. And, because making a change is certainly more uncomfortable then remaining in the cozy habits they have formed, you will likely lose that battle (cut to advisor banging their head against a wall).

By planting your flag firmly in the camp of a particular behavior change, the client will begin to both consciously and subconsciously defend the pros of maintaining the status quo. Click To Tweet

Even when clients logically agree with your recommendation for changing their behaviors, numerous studies, across all demographics, show the commitment and conviction to actually implement the change is significantly less if they were told what to do versus making the choice of their own volition. *Side note: For a fun and entertaining way to read about a cross section of these studies, I’d recommend picking up Daniel Pink’s, Drive, The Surprising Truth about What Motivates Us.

Okay, okay,….yeah, yeah, yeah….you’re getting the picture. Clearly you have to become more of a guide or facilitator to their self-discovery, if you actually want to make some headway in helping your clients develop healthy financial responses and behaviors. Bingo! Man, you catch on quick!  The good news is that, in the end, you’ll end up with self-aware clients who make more mindful decisions! The bad news is that it will require some patience. 

In my previous blog post titled “I Mean, Really, What is Risk Tolerance Anyway?”, I shared our MQ perspective of how to get a far more accurate understanding of your clients’ risk tolerance; more specifically, a better understanding of how they might respond to unexpected events. By spending time discussing challenging obstacles or events the client has experienced in the past and how they responded or coped, you and your client can gain insight into their instinctual responses (do they more frequently respond with fight, flight, fawn, or freeze). In addition, exploring the relationships, resources, and skills they relied on to help them make it through, can assist with building emotional resilience and proactively plan for coping with transitions on the horizon.

In addition, it can be incredibly insightful to discuss your client’s biography for the purpose of identifying how perspectives and habits were formed. What lessons did they learn (directly or by observation) from parents or guardians about money? When and how did they first earn money? What was their first big purchase and what influenced their choice? Encourage them to share their stories with you. 

Once you begin exploring these memories, you can guide the client in reflecting on how that experience may have influenced their perspective, preferences, and habits today. Although many will have instant insights, others might have difficulty at first to make the connection. This is often because they have not explored this trail of thought before and the neuron-pathways that “connect the dots” haven’t formed yet. Their brains simply need more space and time to process. You can suggest they continue to think about how these past experiences might have influenced them and to freely share any insights they have in future meetings. Remember, the discovery process is simply an opportunity for them to gain insight that informs their decision making. You are not responsible for forcing an outcome. It is our experience, however, that clients return with many ah-ha moments to share after a few days of reflection.

One final suggestion for how to help bring subconscious thoughts and behaviors to the conscious brain is to offer opportunities to learn from others experiences. I believe there is a lot of amazing opportunity the financial planning world has yet to tap into by exploring ways to bring clients together into community. By listening to how others have experienced and approached life and finances, an individual can become far more aware of their own perspectives and choose to adopt the positive characteristics they find in others. I’m proud to say that a handful of MQ Community firms are dabbling in frameworks like Conversation Circles with their clients and having great success.

Despite the method you chose to guide your clients in reflection and self-evaluation, the key is understanding the shift YOU must take from being an “advice giver” to being a facilitator of self-discovery, a thinking-partner, and a collator of information to support your clients’ autonomous decisions. There’s simply no other role you can play that would lead to higher levels of buy-in and commitment to implementation and behavior change.

- Amy N Mullen, CFP®”