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Dear Advisor: Here's What Couples May Not Be Telling You

I find myself in a lot of conversations about how to engage couples more effectively. The more I talk and the more I write about this issue, the more I realize that we haven’t found the answers because we’ve been asking the wrong question.

So today, and with your indulgence, I thought I might try a different angle. Rather than draw on the data and talk about the research, I’m going to put my client hat on and talk about what it’s like, as part of a couple. Consider this an open letter to the industry, one that reflects my personal views and experiences.

Dear Advisor:

My husband and I are like many couples; one of us is more involved in the finances than the other. One of us thinks more about money and investments. One of us sets (and often attends) meetings with our financial advisor. Neither of us believes that this is anything but natural because we came to the marriage with different skills, aptitudes and interests.

At the same time, I have some unique insights into the industry, the research and the conversations that advisors are having about couples just like us. I hear that you understand how important it is to be working equally with couples (thanks for that) and I hear some form of this question. “How can I get couples to come in together?” Or sometimes, “How can I engage them equally when they do come in?” The sub-text on both questions seems to be this. “How do I get them both interested in talking about investments?”

The problem is, I think that’s the wrong question. So here’s an attempt to re-frame the question.

  • Instead of asking how you can get us equally involved in the finances, ask what it means to communicate with us because we aren’t?
  • Instead of asking how you can encourage us to come in together, ask how you can make the agenda so compelling to both of us that we want to?
  • By changing the question, of course, you’re faced with a new challenge. How do you re-frame your client reviews to focus on issues that are compelling to us both? But if you get it right, I promise you it will be a powerful experience for us. And if that’s the case, we’ll not only be loyal, we’ll likely tell our friends about the experience.

    So here’s what might be important to know about us if the goal is to engage us in a different way.

    While one of us knows more about investments, we don’t really think that’s a problem. We have different strengths.

    While we aren’t equally interested in, or knowledgeable about, investments, we’re equally invested in the future those investments will fund. This is our life we’re talking about.

    Because discussions about our future often get mixed in with discussions about investments, we don’t talk about the former nearly enough. And that’s a shame.

    While we’re equally invested in our shared future, sometimes we find it hard to craft a meaningful joint vision for that future. Yes, we find it hard to communicate about some things.

    Creating a shared vision, defining our priorities as a family and feeling inspired about the future we are trying to create is really, really important.

    In order to engage couples, focus more on what’s common between us (our future, our families, our values and our priorities) than what’s different (our investment acumen).

    So I’m but one half of a couple, which in turn is but one example among thousands (well, millions) of others. So without the backing of hard data, but from my heart, I’d suggest the following:

    1. Help us create a shared vision

    Set the stage for the relationship by helping us talk about what it is we want to create for the future. I know you aren’t a psychologist but we need the work we do to reflect this vision. And we’ll thank you for it. You might want to use tools like value cards . Todd Fithian, at Legacy , does some great work in this area.

    2. Focus on progress against that shared vision

    Create agendas that focus on what we’re trying to achieve (our vision) rather than just the tools we’re using to get there (investments). I do understand that you need to focus on the money and the investments as well, but this has a lot to do with positioning. Are we coming in to talk about progress against our vision or are we coming in to talk about the market? It’s ok that you work more directly, and more often, with one of us once we have that clear vision in place.

    3. Help us improve on the things that really matter to us the most

    While one of us might appreciate that invitation to a conference call on global markets , you might be best to focus on the things we both care about, like our families, or travel or just about anything else. If you can help us teach out son about money, we’ll feel more ‘appreciated’ than if you help one of us understand a complex investment topic.

    4. Help us document and share the important details

    There’s one big (and very real) problem that faces couples like us and it has to do with understanding what happens if the other person isn’t there to make decisions. Some time ago, one of us had to go in for a serious operation and it prompted a very difficult conversation about who to call, what insurance was in place and what needed to be done if things didn’t go as we had hoped. Can you help us share that information easily? Can you be the person we rely on if something terrible does happen?

    5. Stop using jargon

    One of us doesn’t understand investments but, it turns out, is still smart. Being part of a conversation you only half understand not only makes you a passive observer, it’s uncomfortable and demotivating. Checking in to ensure the other person understands what’s being said isn’t the answer; that would make any of us feel just a little stupid. Can you change the language instead?

    If you could do these things, you’d engage us both and do it naturally. But there’s something more; you’d be helping us navigate an incredibly difficult process. You’d inspire us and our family to think bigger and to be hopeful. You’d bring something meaningful to us beyond the work that you do. And that matters.

    I think it’s clear why it matters to us, but I think it should matter to you as well. If you can engage us both, you’re building a lifetime relationship with the family, not one person. If you can engage us both, we’ll be more likely to choose to work with you for the long-term. After all, just because one of us doesn’t understand investments doesn’t mean both of us don’t make the decision to work or stay with you. And if you can engage both of us, you’ll be solving a real problem, one that we actually talk to friends and family about. There will be referrals.

    Thanks for stopping by