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That’s Not What I Meant

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How biases and assumptions can undermine client conversations  

Here is a statistic to give advisors pause: Research by the Pew Center found that 44% of adults between 18 and 49 say they are not likely to have children. That signals a significant cultural and demographic shift, calling for adjustments to the standard financial planning script.

Pamela Lucina, President of the Northern Trust Institute and Chief Fiduciary Officer and Head of Trust and Advisory Practice, recently talked about this with The Flexible Advisor, and how it illustrates a larger issue:  the need to recognize and rethink some long-standing biases and assumptions.

A new demographic 

You may already see this in your practice. The new generation of investors includes a growing and influential population: childless/child-free clients. Like most advisors, you are likely accustomed to, and adept at, working with clients whose children are a prominent factor in their long-term plans. But those with no children and no intention of having them present a different set of priorities, objectives, concerns, and expectations. 

“It's not what you ask, it’s how you ask.” 
– Pamela Lucina

A new approach

With this in mind, Lucina says that some seemingly innocuous turns of phrase may unwittingly make clients uncomfortable. For example, a client with no children may come to the table feeling a bit stigmatized. “For generations, society told women that they must have children to have a full life. As much as that is changing, I think women still feel they have to explain their choices. There may be a variety of reasons for a person’s decision – medical, financial, emotional -- but in the end, it is none of the advisor’s business.” In fact, she says, asking “could make the client feel like an outlier or not similar to your client base. You don’t want to feed the feeling of having to be defensive.” Above all, she said, don't question their decision. “From an advisor’s perspective, asking ‘what if you change your mind?’ may simply be a way to initiate a conversation about contingency planning, but it can be offensive if the client thinks you're questioning their decision or making them feel somehow flaky. Assume that a client’s decisions are well thought out and start from there”.

When approaching client conversations, she advocates “deep listening, unclouded by any conscious and unconscious bias regarding the client's intentions, or our own agendas. Empathy is important.” According to Lucina, “It's not what you ask, it’s how you ask.” In the discovery process, open-ended questions like “What are the things you care about?” can go a long way in making clients comfortable while gathering the information you need. Take, for example, a seemingly benign question such as “Do you have a family?" Even if unintended, this phrasing conveys an unspoken bias towards a traditional family structure, usually with children, and a potentially unfavorable judgement on your part. As Lucina explains, “Everyone has a family. The biological family, the chosen family of friends. The concept of ‘family’ may evolve for some people over time.”  Instead, she suggests that an open-ended question such as “Tell me about your family” will foster a more comfortable tone, invite a more personal response, and help you to gain more insight into the individual.


  • Those with no children present a different set of priorities and expectations.

  • Empathy is important.

  • Open-ended questions will help you gain more insight.

A new sensibility

The trend of childless/child-free clients is just one facet of a society that is increasingly recognizing and embracing diversity — not only in terms of non-traditional family structures but in career paths, personal priorities, attitudes about money, and long-term aspirations as well. A key to more productive conversations is to approach them with genuine curiosity, appreciating and intentionally investigating what makes each client unique. “Aim to become more empathetic and more attuned to the person sitting across from you,” said Lucina. “We have a saying here at Northern Trust: Assets serve a purpose. When you really understand the client’s lifestyle, goals, and dreams, you are better equipped to tailor a personalized strategy for that individual. It's not based upon our preconceived biases, or what we think their goals should be.”

Access The FULL Podcast

You can access the full discussion on The Flexible Advisor, wherever you get your podcasts.

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