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6 Practical Communication Strategies for Advisors, Part 2

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the second of a 2-part article on motivational interviewing by Dr. Martha Brown Menard, PhD, of Questis. Part 1 offered an introduction to MI and suggested the first three of six strategies for utilizing MI with clients. In Part 2 she picks up the thread with strategy #4.

Most experts agree that communication skills are important for financial advisors, including retirement plan advisors. Yet communication is an area in which few financial professionals receive any formal training. Further, specific guidance for advisors on how to improve these critically important skills is difficult to find.

4. Normalize Difficulty and Ambivalence

Changing financial behaviors is hard for most people, and it often takes multiple attempts. Motivation is not a stable trait; it’s a state of mind that can vary considerably over time. It’s also very common for people to feel ambivalent about change, even positive change that will clearly benefit them. Normalizing is not intended to make participants feel comfortable with maintaining the status quo or not changing problematic behaviors. Instead, it helps them understand that many people experience difficulty changing, and reminds them that they are not alone in their struggles. In my own experience, I have heard clients say that normalizing statements also help them not feel shamed or judged about their past financial behaviors. Some sample normalizing statements include:

  • “A lot of people feel concerned about changing their [spending habits].”

  • “Most people report both good and not so good things about their [spending behavior].”

  • “Many people report feeling the way you do. They want to change their [spending], but find it difficult.”

  • “That is not unusual, many people report having made several previous attempts to [save more money].”

  • “A lot of people are concerned about [not being able to spend money on things they enjoy] when [trying to build up their emergency fund].”

5. Ask ‘Stage-setting’ Questions

Generally, simply giving advice to people does not work very well—most people do not like being told what they should do. Research in healthcare, for example, has shown that only 5% to 10% of smokers are likely to quit when told that they should because smoking is bad for their health. Most of us prefer having choices when making decisions related to changing behaviors.

How information is presented to a participant affects how it is received. When new, relevant information is presented in a neutral and nonjudgmental manner, it empowers the participant to make a more informed decision about changing a problematic behavior. One way to do this is to provide feedback that allows the participant to compare their behavior to others’ behaviors, so they know how their behavior relates to organizational or even national norms, such as plan participation or contribution rates.

When an advisor asks a participant what they know about how their financial behavior affects other aspects of their life, such as how a credit score affects loan rates, participants might say “not much” or even have erroneous information or beliefs. This can be followed-up by the advisor asking if they are interesting in learning more about the topic and then being prepared to provide them with relevant advice or information that the advisor has prepared or has available. Whenever possible, it’s a good idea to focus on the positives of changing. Here are some example ‘stage-setting’ questions and statements:

  • “Is it OK if we spending a few minutes talking about....? [Followed by] “What do you know about....?”[Followed still by] “Are you interested in learning more about.....?”[After this, the participant can be offered relevant information or material related to changing their problematic behavior, or what impact that behavior is having on other areas of their life.]

  • “What can you tell me about how your current spending affects your ability to meet your financial goal of __?”

  • “So you said you are concerned about not being able to spend money on things you enjoy, like [going out for drinks after work with friends], if you start saving more money. How much could you save if you went out less often? Are there other ways you could [spend time doing something relaxing with your friends] that would help you meet your savings goal?”

  • “I’ve taken the information about your finances that you provided at our initial assessment, calculated your monthly average retirement saving percentage, and put together this chart, with some national averages of people in your age group for comparison. Would you be interested in seeing how increasing your monthly savings by a small amount, compounded over time, could increase your future income?”

6. Use Summary Statements

Summary statements are a way to tie together information participants have already expressed, especially in terms of reflecting ambivalence around change, and help move the conversation to a different topic, or expand or deepen a discussion. To use a summary statement effectively requires the advisor to listen carefully throughout the meeting. Summaries can also be an effective and satisfying way to either end a meeting by offering a summary of the entire meeting, or to transition a talkative participant to a different topic. Paradoxically, simply reflecting back or summarizing what participants have said without offering advice can prompt them to suggest possible solutions. An example of a summary statement could be: “It sounds like you are concerned about not having an emergency fund because it is costing you a lot of money in high interest credit card debt when you charge unexpected expenses, and those bills are also causing you a lot of stress and creating conflict at home. You also said saving more money will probably mean cutting back on doing some of the things you enjoy now. That doesn’t sound like an easy choice to put into practice.”


Ideas and action plans for improving the participant’s financial wellness, especially those that involve changing problematic behaviors, are much more likely to be implemented when generated at least in part by the participant. The advisor has domain and subject matter expertise when it comes to financial and retirement planning. At the same time, the participant is the expert on their life and financial goals, what they are willing and able to do to meet them, and creative strategies for achieving them. Advisors can offer advice, but it’s always up to the participant to take the necessary actions. A collaborative, empathetic, and nonjudgmental approach can go a long way toward encouraging plan participants to follow through and act on that advice.

Dr. Martha Brown Menard is the Senior Researcher and data diva for Questis. She is a research scientist, financial wellness coach, and member of the Association for Financial Counseling and Planning Education. She is passionate about democratizing personalized financial guidance through scalable and configurable technology.