by Edward J. Horwitz, CFP®, ChFC®, CLU®, CSA; and Bradley T. Klontz, Psy.D., CFP®
The Journal of Financial Planning caught up with Edward Horwitz at FPA Experience 2013 in Orlando, where he presented his and Brad Klontz’s research findings on overcoming client resistance to change. In this short video, Ed explains the research and offers an example of a reflective listening response, which he and Klontz write about in their article “Understanding and Dealing with Client Resistance to Change.”
How many times have you sat with a client and given your best advice, based on a thorough analysis of qualitative and quantitative data and your learned and academically sound opinion, only to have the client sigh, argue, respond with a “Yes, but,” make excuses, or agree with you only to find out later the client did not follow through?
Even some of our best clients hesitate, fail to act, or simply do not take the agreed upon action to implement planning recommendations. The fact is, making positive behavioral change isn’t easy. Look at how many times people fail in their attempts to quit smoking or stick to a diet and exercise plan. When it comes to making meaningful financial management behavioral change, the challenge can be just as difficult.
Financial planners routinely experience objections from clients and prospects in gaining agreement to proceed with implementing recommendations. Traditional sales training tends to view objections as a failure to properly explain the value or advantages of the product, service, or recommendation. If the client just had more information, or the right information, presented in the right way, then the objection would be overcome (Ziglar 1991). The novice sales person who “failed” would put more effort into educating him or herself on the details and benefits of the product in preparation for the next sales opportunity.
Objections, however, are actually what psychologists refer to as resistance, and they are a normal part of the behavioral change process (Miller and Rollnick 2002). Research has found that failure to recognize client resistance and shift tactics when faced with it, can result in a deeper seating of the status quo and work against the financial change desired (Klontz, Kahler, and Klontz 2008; Miller and Rollnick 2002). In other words, a financial planner’s natural response in the face of client resistance is likely to backfire and make the client even less likely to change.
To be more effective in working with clients on financial matters, understanding proper techniques for helping clients deal with change and resistance to change is critical (Klontz et al. 2008). This article explores the change process, ambivalence toward change, resistance toward change, and introduces evidenced-based techniques to help financial planners shepherd clients through the change process.
The Process for Change
To help facilitate the change process, the client must believe he or she has the ability to change. In fact, a client’s lack of confidence is one of the biggest obstacles they must overcome in order to change (Klontz et al. 2008). Your ability to help provide a sense of confidence within the client will be beneficial to the change process.
Prochaska, Norcross, and DiClemente (1994) identified a six-stage process of change, which financial planners can conceptualize during client interactions: (1) pre-contemplation, (2) contemplation, (3) preparation, (4) action, (5) maintenance, and (6) termination. In their book Facilitating Financial Health, Klontz et al. (2008) applied the stages of change model to the financial planning process, and Grubman, Bullerud and Holland (2011) applied the model to intervening with an overspending client.
Here is a brief listing of the stages of change with some associated identifiers as described by Prochaska et al. (1994).
Stage 1: Pre-contemplation. In the pre-contemplation or denial stage, clients are unaware they have a problem. The psychological denial of financial problems has been identified as a money disorder (Klontz and Klontz 2009), and research has found that financial denial can come at a great cost. For example, financial denial is associated with lower income, lower net worth, higher revolving credit (Klontz, Britt, Archuleta, and Klontz 2012), compulsive buying, pathological gambling, hoarding, financial enabling, financial dependence, anti-rich beliefs, and money worship beliefs (Klontz and Britt 2012).
Stage 2: Contemplation. Clients are in the contemplation stage when they recognize they have a problem and are considering a change within the next 12 months. They start to identify some of the negative consequences of their current situation and begin to realize they may be responsible for some of what’s happening. In the contemplation stage, ambivalence about change emerges.
Stage 3: Preparation. A client in the preparation stage is anticipating making a change in the next one to three months, so this is the stage when creating plans of action is appropriate. Clients in this stage may formulate ideas for cutting back on wasteful spending, look to increase savings, or make plans to begin paying down debt. Information gathering now focuses on solutions to the problems rather than just on causes.
Stage 4: Action. In the action stage, clients are able to implement their plans of action, and real change occurs. This is the time where the planner can be directive, share opinions, and provide specific advice. Most traditional sales techniques are designed to address client objections when the client is in the action stage. However, based on the research of Prochaska and colleagues Klontz et al. (2008), at any given time around any given issue, only 20 percent of our financial planning clients are in the action stage, so 80 percent of the time, traditional methods of overcoming objections, such as providing more information, arguing with logic, and encouraging immediate action, will be ill-timed. Furthermore, for a client who is in an earlier stage of change, these efforts will make it less likely for him or her to act on your advice.
Stage 5: Maintenance. In this stage, clients will assimilate their changed behavior into a lifestyle routine. Setbacks and relapses are normal. It is important to understand and anticipate the client’s need for support in this stage, and the planner should be prepared to suggest possible new tools and positive substitutes for old behaviors. The use of systematic and automated deposits to savings account, online tracking tools showing investment growth, or updated personal debt and cash flow statements can serve to help prevent future relapses and provide reinforcement for positive financial behaviors.
Stage 6: Termination. In the termination stage, new behavior is fully integrated, and little if any temptation to revert back to the prior state exists. Typically, the client-planner relationship moves to monitoring and asset allocation/protection as a primary focus. The relationship with the client matures into a long-term partnership with open and honest dialogue. Based on the success of your client in making the desired changes, this stage also may be the best time to seek referrals from the client (Wershing 2013).
Before Change Can Happen
The work of Miller and Rollnick (2002) and Kahler, Klontz, and Klontz (2007), described three conditions that must be met before a client will be motivated to make changes in his or her financial life. These conditions are the perceived need to change, the perceived ability to change, and a client’s readiness to change.
The perceived need to change can be established through dialogue relating to the review of the client’s current position and the goals he or she has established. The ability to change can be established through encouragement and by reviewing past examples of when the client has made successful change. Readiness to change is often harder to achieve and takes patience and persistence.
By using the techniques for overcoming ambivalence and resistance discussed next, you can help the client make the change needed. To effectively use the tools and techniques described in the following sections, a relationship of trust is required to have a genuine and meaningful dialogue to facilitate change (Kahler et al. 2007).
Resistance Is Normal
Resistance is a normal part of the change process and not necessarily a reason for concern. In fact, if you are not running into resistance, you are probably not connecting with your client on a meaningful level (Ziglar 1991).
Resistance responses have been compared to traffic signals, asking you to slow down or stop (Miller and Rollnick 2002). A red or yellow light during a change discussion is not a problem, as long as you recognize it, stop what you are doing, and work to move the signal back to green.
A persistent red or yellow signal that increases during your discussion is likely a response to something you are doing. In fact, any sign of resistance on the part of the client is caused by the planner. You are creating the resistance. Persistent resistance responses are not a problem with the client, but rather a planner skill issue. Often, resistance is seen when the planner may be moving the client too quickly to the next stage, or when recommendations and solutions are offered when the client is not receptive (for example, when not in the action stage). Increasing client resistance also can be caused by the use of poorly timed techniques that don’t match the client’s stage of change. Changing styles to help decrease resistance is important, because doing so has been associated with long-term change (Miller and Rollnick 2002).
Research in the field of Motivational Interviewing (MI), a psychological technique developed by Miller and Rollnick (2002), describes methods for facilitating change, including specific techniques for change-inspiring dialogue. The concepts and applications related to MI described here were adapted for a planner-client relationship using Miller and Rollnick’s methods. Through practice, the use of research-based techniques for overcoming ambivalence and motivating clients to make meaningful change can be accomplished.
Change talk is an important concept described by Miller and Rollnick (2002), and is designed to intensify and resolve ambivalence by highlighting the differences between the current condition and the desired future state. Simply put, change talk is talk in favor of change.
To be most effective, the client needs to be the primary source of arguments in favor of change. This critical point cannot be overstated. Typically, when a financial planner runs into client resistance, the planner will engage in change talk in an effort to help. This is exactly the wrong thing to do. In response to financial planner change talk, clients engage in status quo talk, rehearsing the reasons why they shouldn’t change, and making it less likely they will change.
Miller and Rollnick (2002) identified four categories of change talk, which we’ve adapted to a client-planner relationship later in the article: (1) disadvantages of the status quo, (2) advantages of change, (3) optimism for change, and (4) intention to change.
Disadvantages of the status quo statements acknowledge there is a problem and reason for concern. There may not be a verbal recognition of the problem, merely the recognition of the undesirable elements of the current state of behavior.
The advantages of change statements help the client recognize the desirable elements of the future state and help bring out the positive results gained through change.
Optimism for change statements are formed to help the client verbalize his or her confidence and ability to make the desired change. Lastly, the intention to change statements by the client are where the desired future state and how his or her life will be improved take shape.
Here are some examples of the different forms of change talk related to financial planning clients.
Disadvantages of the status quo: “What are some of the reasons you think you need to start planning?” “In what ways does not having a plan in place worry you?” “What are the reasons you have decided to meet with me today?” “What current financial challenges worry you the most?”
Advantages of change: “How would you feel if you were able to save more?” “How would paying off your credit cards improve your lifestyle?” “How do you feel your life would improve by implementing a plan?”
Optimism for change: “What personal strengths do you think it will take to make this change happen?” “Tell me about a time when you were able to make a similar change.”
Intention to change: “How important is making this change in your life to accomplish your goals?” “What would you be willing to try/change to achieve your retirement goals?” “Have there been other times in your life you tried to change and didn’t succeed? What did you learn from that experience that can help you now?”
Notice that in several of these change talk questions, you are asking your client to establish the value of the change and create motivation through statements of confidence. This may seem counterintuitive, because many practitioners have been told that they are the ones who need to establish value and motivation to get the client to take action. Sharpening the contrast of the present state to the future state serves as a form of intrinsic motivation, which intensifies the discrepancy to overcome ambivalence and create motivation for change (Miller and Rollnick 2002). Eliciting effective change talk from clients is a difficult skill to master and requires practice.
Reflective Listening and Responses
Reflective listening is a powerful technique that Miller and Rollnick (2002) describe for overcoming ambivalence and for building motivation for change; it is also one of the most challenging to master (Klontz et al. 2008).
Miller and Rollnick (2002) describe the essence of reflective listening as figuring out what someone is really saying, even though they may not be articulating it fully or effectively. The skilled reflective listener will interpret and summarize what the listener is trying to say, then reflect it back in the form of a statement (Klontz et al. 2008; Miller and Rollnick 2002). Well-formed, reflective statements are less likely to elicit resistance from a client than a question and are preferable to reflective questions (Miller and Rollnick 2002). To illustrate the difference, here are examples of reflective responses, one in the form of a question and the other a statement:
Question A: “You are having difficulty saving?”
Statement A: “You are having difficulty saving.”
Question B: “You are not happy with your investment performance?”
Statement B: “You are not happy with your investment performance.”
Although the verbiage in each set of lines are identical, the key to a good reflective statement is inflection in the tone of voice. The reflective response ends in a lower tone, while questions tend to be raised at the end (Miller and Rollnick 2002).
The way these two sentences are received and responded to by the client can be dramatically different. Questions often are experienced as confrontational and are more likely to elicit feelings of anxiety and defensiveness. Changing questions to statements is a subtle yet powerful technique, however, eradicating questions in client conversations can be challenging.
Keep in mind, asking questions often elicits counterproductive arguments and can drive the client further from change. Examples of particularly damaging questions that can make a client less likely to change include: “Why can’t you seem to start saving?” “Why don’t you want to change?” “Why are you afraid to implement this plan?” “Why can’t you just set aside $100 a month?”
The likely response from a client confronted with these types of questions is an avid defense of the status quo and a list of reasons why change isn’t possible right now (Miller and Rollnick 2002). Clients then leave the planner’s office less likely to change. It is better for a client to have never met with the planner in the first place than to engage in these types of dialogues.
Think back to this example:
Question B: “You are not happy with your investment performance?”
Statement B: “You are not happy with your investment performance.”
Question B is likely to elicit a negative emotional response, causing the client to retract whatever he or she said to elicit this question or focus on fixing blame. This inhibits the course of the conversation, creates a negative experience associated with the planner, and interrupts change and finding solutions. However, statement B acknowledges what the client is really trying to say. With practice, reflective listening and changing questions to statements in reflective dialogues can become a powerful technique to help clients prepare for positive change.
Reflective responses can prove to be the most effective technique for facilitating change. Examples of different types of reflective listening techniques follow.
Simple reflection. A simple reflective statement that gets to the meaning of what the client is trying to say and moves the conversation forward often is all it takes to move a client toward change. Even if a reflective response doesn’t accurately capture the client’s full meaning, the client correcting the planner helps him clarify his thoughts and feelings to move the conversation forward (Resnicow and McMaster 2012; Klontz et al. 2008). The planner has the choice to reflect back the content of what the client is saying or the emotion the client is feeling:
Client: “I am doing the best I can, but I just can’t seem to save what I need to each month.”
Planner (reflecting the content): “You are trying hard but saving more money each month isn’t easy.”
Client: “My credit card debt is too much, and my extra $200 a month isn’t getting me anywhere.”
Planner (reflecting the emotion): “It’s very frustrating.”
Amplified reflection. An amplified reflection is an exaggerated reflective response. It is a difficult technique to master and will take some practice because an amateurish amplified reflection may be received as sarcasm. If it is used properly, it can get the client to retreat from their argument against change and engage in positive change talk to correct your exaggeration. If it is not used properly, it can create an argumentative result.
Client: “Even though this plan is important to us, we don’t have any money to invest right now.”
Planner: “So coming up with even a modest amount of money for investing right now is impossible?”
Client: “I am not worried about retirement right now. Besides, I won’t be able to retire based on what I make.”
Planner: “So retirement is not an option for you, and we shouldn’t even build that idea into your goals for the future?”
Double-sided reflection. With a double-sided reflection, you use the client’s statement, then add the other side of the issue to complete the reflection. Use “and” versus “but” to maintain a balanced reflective statement.
Client: “I know the plan you are presenting is what you believe I need to do, but I am not going to proceed at this time.”
Planner: “On the one hand, you recognize there needs to be change for you to meet your goals, and on the other hand, what I am presenting isn’t acceptable to you.”
Client: “I know my credit card debt is too high, but I have no way to pay it down right now.”
Planner: “So, you realize you have too much debt, and at the same time, you can’t seem to find any extra money to increase your payments.”
Several Motivational Interviewing techniques, including shifting focus, reframing, and agreeing with a twist (Miller and Rollnick 2002) don’t involve reflection and are effective in dealing with client resistance.
Shifting focus. Use this technique to counter a roadblock. Shifting focus can help you to go around an issue to maintain the productive conversation and move the dialogue forward.
Client: “You are probably going to tell us how we are spending too much money eating dinner out all the time or taking too expensive vacations, and that’s the reason we have no money for investment savings.”
Planner: “I don’t want you to worry about where the funding might come from or what sacrifices to your household budget may be required for now. Let’s talk about what you see as the benefits for increasing your investment savings.”
Reframing. With reframing, there is an acknowledgement of the client’s observation or point of view, but a different interpretation is offered.
Client: “I have tried to keep to a budget in the past, but it just hasn’t worked.”
Planner: “You seem very persistent, even when you have failed in the past. You must be very determined to succeed at reaching your goals in life, and just the fact that we are talking about giving budgeting another try tells me this must be really important to you.”
Agreeing with a twist. Just like the name implies, in this technique, agreement with the client is combined with a shift in direction. It is a reflection followed by a reframe. Agreeing with the client first increases the likelihood that he or she will accept what comes next.
Client: “I have tried to keep to a budget in the past, but it just hasn’t worked.”
Planner: “It sounds to me like you must really feel that keeping on budget is important, or you wouldn’t have continued to try. Obviously, you weren’t getting the needed support or tools to keep on track. It seems like you are really close to success. Let’s give it another try, but with the help and tools you need to finally succeed.”
When you and your clients are able to connect through meaningful dialogue using the techniques presented in this article, your ability to help clients achieve their financial goals will be significantly enhanced. Through practice, you are likely to see an increase in helping your clients move through change and implementing the plans you have developed for them. Research has shown that the use of these techniques is associated with significantly improved retention of the behavior change (Goldberg and Kiernan 2005).
Without proper help, support, and understanding, the client may take years or fail altogether to make the needed change. Your role in this process can be critical factor to help hinder or nurture this change.
Edward J. Horwitz, CFP®, ChFC®, CLU®, CSA, is the director of the Center for Risk Management and instructor of insurance and financial planning at Creighton University College of Business. He also is a doctoral student in personal financial planning at Kansas State University.
Bradley T. Klontz, Psy.D., CFP®, is an associate professor in personal financial planning at Kansas State University and a managing partner with Occidental Asset Management (OCCAM), a registered investment advisory firm and partnership opportunity for independent advisers.
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