Why Positive Encouragement Often Fails

Have you experienced working with a client who has dragged their feet, procrastinated, or downright refused to make a change? Do they continue to ignore the issue despite the endless list of significant and legitimate reasons you’ve provided for why this change would be in their best interest? You already know that you’re not alone in dealing with these frustrating clients because every advisor you meet has a similar story. But, have you ever considered that your positive encouragement might actually be resulting in the opposite response than you were aiming for?

In my previous article, Advice Kills Conversation, I explain how stating your perspective and opinion too early can cause the client to disengage, denies them the opportunity to process information and form insights and opinions of their own, and, in some cases, reduces their self-efficacy. Continuing on this theme, in this article, we’ll explore why, despite your best intentions, making the case for positive change might backfire and have the opposite result.

We already understand that change is hard. We experience the dread of doing something new or different even when we know it will improve our mental, physical, or financial well-being.  Exchanging new behaviors for those that are familiar, comfortable, and automatic requires mental (and possibly physical) energy in an individual’s daily life that is likely already demanding.

When an individual is considering a change, a weighing of pros and cons occurs — both consciously and unconsciously. Conscious pros and cons are most often the practical or financial outcomes that are the more measurable results they would experience. The subconscious pros and cons tend to be more related to the emotional consequences and how the change might require a shift in their identity (what they believe about themselves or how they believe others will perceive them).

As Financial Planners, when we spot a problem with an obvious solution, our instinct is to jump in and help by pointing out the need for change and all the reasons why it would be beneficial. In the effective communication model, “Motivational Interviewing,” this instinct is called the “righting reflex.”  It is our “knee-jerk” reaction to jump in and try to fix the problem as quickly as possible. However, when an individual is feeling hesitant to make a change for any reason, taking the position of “pro-change” will often push the person into the position of defending the reasons why they should avoid changing. The client may even verbalize excuses for why the timing is off or why certain challenges make it too hard. And, the more they hear themselves vocalize the reasons for not making a change, the more it strengthens their conviction to “stay put.”

“… when an individual is feeling hesitant to make a change…taking the position of “pro-change” will often push the person into the position of defending the reasons why they should avoid changing.” Click To Tweet

Let’s examine the case of Mr. Pop U. Larity. Despite making a very impressive salary, Mr. Larity’s financial planner is concerned that his spending habits will jeopardize his retirement goals and not provide him with the quality of life he envisioned. Mr. Larity had already commented that his spending might be an issue; therefore, his financial planner assumed his advice would not come as a surprise. Mr. Larity’s planner prepared reports and projections to support his suggestion of reducing his spending, specifically on frequent and exuberant outings with friends, and shared a long list of beneficial outcomes should he successfully follow this strategy. Although Mr. Larity understood the logic of his advisor's advice, he felt irritated at his advisor and frustrated by his financial circumstances. After working hard for many years, shouldn’t he be able to enjoy spending his income more freely? Trying not to show his underlying resentment, he agreed to try to make a change but made sure his advisor knew how unhappy he was about having to make this sacrifice.

In this scenario, Mr. Pop U. Larity proudly perceives himself (albeit subconsciously) as a generous and social person. Although he was already aware that his spending was an issue and he had been considering the need to make a change, his advisor's “pro-change” stance threatened his identity and put him in a position of defending all the reasons this was unfair or undesirable. In fact, it has led Mr. Larity to focus on ways he could get around these restrictive rules or hide his spending from his financial planner. Unintentionally, the financial planner took on a parental-type role, and Mr. Larity, the rebellious teenager fighting for autonomy.

The “Motivational Interviewing” model introduces a far more effective method for building the client’s motivation and conviction to make change. It involves facilitating a conversation that leads the client to identify and vocalize their own reasons and benefits for making change.  In other words, asking questions that invoke “pro-change” answers. “Now that we’ve run our analysis on your current financial circumstances, built the projections for your retirement, and identified a discrepancy, do you have any ideas for modifications you could make to either the retirement vision and plans or to your current cash flow allocation that would help close the gap? What do you see as the practical and financial benefits of making those modifications?  Also, what would the emotional benefits be of these modifications?”

In addition, the advisor can help bring the subconscious emotional and identity-related obstacles to the conscious level to be examined. In most cases, with some thoughtful exploration, alternative ways of expressing one’s identity or creating an emotional benefit can be established. “You don’t seem thrilled about the idea of giving up the weekly outings in which you treat your friends to dinner, which is understandable! They sound fun! What do you enjoy most about those outings? Which of your core values are reflected in those outings? Can we think of alternative ways to express those same core values or enjoy the same emotional outcomes?”

In situations like this, shifting your role as an “advice giver” to one of a “thinking partner” can prevent the relationship from falling into a parent/child dynamic and maintain the client’s sense of autonomy. By examining and modifying how you approach the situation, you can increase the client's commitment to the plan, conviction to follow through, and strength of the planner/client relationship. I’d say learning more about effective communication is well worth an investment of your time, energy, and money, wouldn’t you??

-Amy N Mullen, CFP®