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From Client Resistance to Action: The Psychology of Client Motivation

Derek Hagen CFP®, CFA, CFT-I™, FBS®, CIPM August 9, 2023

Advisor motivating client

Every financial planner has encountered resistant clients. Most times, these clients aren’t entirely resistant—there’s one aspect of advice that they’re struggling to implement or one obstacle they can’t seem to get past. You may have found that no matter how you illustrate the problem or the reasoning behind your advice, these resistant clients simply can’t seem to follow through on certain things.

Money is fraught with emotions, so this scenario is common in financial planning. Taking the time to understand the psychology of client motivation can give you a fresh perspective on what’s stopping resistant clients and help you find more effective ways to get them to take action.

Four Important Stages of Change

Enacting positive change or breaking habits can be a difficult process. Rarely does an individual find themselves suddenly and completely motivated to do something. In almost all cases, there’s a journey one must go through before they’re truly ready to work toward making a change.

This is important for financial planners to understand. You cannot change someone who’s not ready to change. You can help them get ready to change, but until they’re ready, you won’t be able to get them to talk to that estate planning attorney or sell that concentrated position, or whatever action they should be taking.

With this in mind, there are four important stages of change:

  1. Pre-contemplation: At this stage, someone is not even aware that there’s a problem to be solved. They need to be told, or they need to discover themselves, that there’s a change to be made. These individuals aren’t actively resisting anything, they just don’t know what needs to be done.
  2. Contemplation: In this stage, an individual knows they need to do something, but they’re not ready to do it. This stage is defined by someone’s awareness of the problem. Typically, status quo bias has someone resisting change at this stage.
  3. Preparation: Once we get to the preparation stage, the scales have tipped. An individual has more reasons to change than reasons to stay the same. They’re thinking about changing and have the desire to make a change.
  4. Action: This stage is where an individual starts to make change happen. Here, someone is not only ready to change but actively implementing the steps they need to take.

There are two more stages of change: maintenance, where an individual is trying to sustain change, and integration, where they’ve successfully integrated the change into their life. In the case of resistant clients, the first four stages are most important for planners to focus on.

Clients who are in the action stage are your ideal clients. They’re the ones you’ll want to replicate. They’ll heed your advice and put it into practice. They’ll be motivated to do things on their own and you’ll likely have great working relationships with them.

Financial advice is meant to work with individuals who are in the action stage. Most of your clients, however, will not be at the action stage for all aspects of their plan. So, for those who are not, a different approach is needed.

The Ambivalence Swamp

One key aspect to motivating clients is first understanding the concept of ambivalence. Ambivalence is a condition in which someone feels reasons to enact positive change and reasons to keep the status quo at the same time. Ambivalence is the natural result of having conflicting motivations. It’s what makes change so difficult.

Clients who are in the contemplation and preparation stages of change are experiencing this phenomenon. Ambivalent clients are not ready to change, but going through ambivalence is an essential part of the process of change. If you can recognize ambivalence, you’ll be in a great position to help motivate clients to change.

The biggest giveaway that a client is feeling ambivalent is when you hear “yeah, but” statements. You may tell a client that their portfolio needs diversification and they’ll say “Yeah, but my grandma gave me these stocks and I don’t want to sell them.” You could tell them that you understand they don’t want to sell their stocks and they may say “Yeah, but I want to have a healthy portfolio.”

Ambivalent clients are ready to argue both points. This is an essential point for financial planners to understand. If you give advice to an ambivalent client, you’re only increasing the chances that they will not accept your advice. If you tell an ambivalent client what they should do, they’re going to argue for all the reasons they don’t want to do it.

This is why I call this the ambivalence swamp. This is where clients get stuck on their journey to change. However, a little more understanding of the nature of motivation, along with a few exercises, can help get clients working their way out of ambivalence.

Extrinsic vs. Intrinsic Motivation

When you’re giving advice to an ambivalent client, what you’re actually giving them are sources of extrinsic motivation.

Extrinsic motivation comes in many forms. It could be research, data, logic, information, persuasion, warnings, or even peer pressure. It’s possible to convince someone to do something with extrinsic motivators, but it’s not likely to create lasting change.

Intrinsic motivation, on the other hand, is what will truly lead someone to enact positive change over time. Intrinsic motivators include confidence, ability, desire, reasons, needs, and many more internal factors.

The reason this distinction is so important is that ambivalent clients need to connect with intrinsic sources of motivation before they’re ready to change.

The key for financial planners, then, is to recognize ambivalence in clients and work to connect those clients with sources of intrinsic motivation.

3 Tactics to Draw Out Intrinsic Motivation

Your clients came to you for financial advice. While change is hard, their motivation is there somewhere. The fact that they’re meeting with you proves that it’s there. You just need to learn how to find it.

There are three simple ways you can learn to foster clients’ intrinsic motivation to encourage change.

1. Motivational Interviewing

You can use motivational interviewing to evoke change talk in clients. This can be a powerful way to get clients to verbally and mentally reinforce their intrinsic reasons for change.

Motivational interviewing involves identifying someone’s reasons for positive change and encouraging them to talk more about it. If somebody says they love eating pasta and drinking wine but they want to lose weight, your response may be, “It sounds like fitness is important to you. Can you tell me more about that?” If they respond that they want to be more health conscious in their daily life, you could ask again, what prompted them to start thinking about their health.

You can continue this cycle three or four times until you’ve got a client listing a lot of reasons why they should be making positive changes. This change talk reflects a client’s intrinsic sources of motivation for change and can help them start to value these motivations more than status quo motivations.

This is a fairly simple technique—the key is to be able to recognize change talk. At the highest level, you need to be able to evaluate whether a client’s reasoning is for or against positive change and get them talking about reasons they should enact change.

To give you a better idea of what change talk looks like, there are two kinds of change talk: mobilizing change talk and preparatory change talk. You can remember them with the acronym DARN CATS.

Preparatory change talk involves desire, ability, reasons, and need. Clients who voice this kind of change talk are almost ready to make a change. They may want to change, realize that they have reasons or a need to change, or even realize that they have the ability to change.

Mobilizing change talk involves commitment language, activation language, and taking steps. Mobilizing change talk happens when a client is almost ready to be in the action stage. This is where they may say they’re willing to make change, they’re going to commit to making change, and they start taking steps, even if they’re small, towards enacting change.

Change talk can come in many flavors. Remember DARN CATS and encourage clients to continue speaking about their motivations for positive change.

2. Strategic Reflective Listening

Another effective tactic for helping clients work through ambivalence and reach the action stage of change is strategic reflective listening.

This is a valuable tactic because it not only helps you understand what clients are truly trying to communicate, but it helps clients articulate what they truly mean. It’s not uncommon for a client to say something and then when it’s reflected back to them, they say it’s not exactly what they meant. This kind of communication can help you and your client zero in on what’s truly important to them, such as their most motivating reasons to change.

There are several different types of reflective listening. In most cases what’s called simple reflection will work well. With simple reflection, you’re simply mirroring what the client has told you. You don’t need to repeat everything, just reflect back the key points of what they said. You could even just reflect back the emotion of what they said.

With reflective listening, you’re making sure your clients are heard and that you both understand their true motivations for wanting to make a change.

3. Scaling Questions

Using scaled questions—sometimes called a change ruler—is an extremely useful tool that can help evoke change talk from clients.

The concept is simple: just ask a client to rate their answer on a scale from 1 to 10. Then, whatever their answer, ask them why they rated it that high. If you asked their likelihood of selling a certain position and they said it was 4 out of 10, you could then ask why they came up to a 4. You would ask for the reasons it wasn’t lower and you could even ask what it would take to get them to a 4.5 or a 5.

The idea again is to get them talking about their reasons for change. You wouldn’t want to ask why they didn’t respond with a 5 or a 6, because then you’ll have them talking about reasons to keep things the same.

You could even take things back to the stages of change and ask a client, on a scale of 1 to 10, how confident they are in their ability to take a certain action. Then when you ask them why their answer was as high as it was, they’ll be reinforcing their own ability to take an action you’d like them to take.

This is a really simple but effective tool for getting clients to find their motivation to change.

Getting Clients to the Action Stage

Clients could be resisting advice for any number of reasons. Financial planners who understand the way change and motivation work can help clients inspire themselves to implement your financial advice.

It’s all about getting clients to the action stage of change. Clients who are in this stage are going to be a pleasure to work with. They’ll be connected to their sources of motivation and follow through on the things you discuss. The more clients you have in the action stage, the more impact you’ll have.

I recently participated in a CE webinar with eMoney, From Client Resistance to Action. Watch the on-demand version to go even deeper into why money is filled with emotions, more tactics for reflective listening, and further discussion of the psychology behind client motivation.

(on-demand version not eligible for CE credits)


DISCLAIMER: The eMoney Advisor Blog is meant as an educational and informative resource for financial professionals and individuals alike. It is not meant to be, and should not be taken as financial, legal, tax or other professional advice. Those seeking professional advice may do so by consulting with a professional advisor. eMoney Advisor will not be liable for any actions you may take based on the content of this blog.

The views and opinions expressed by this blog post guest are solely those of the guest and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of eMoney Advisor, LLC. eMoney Advisor is not responsible for the content, views or opinions presented by our guest, nor may eMoney Advisor be held liable for any actions taken by you based on the content, views or opinions of the guest.

Image of Derek Hagen CFP®, CFA, CFT-I™, FBS®, CIPM
About the Author

Derek Hagen, CFP®, CFA, CFT-I™, FBS®, CIPM is a financial psychology expert specializing in meaning in life and helping clients who feel stuck. He supports financial health, mindset change, and intentional living by helping people understand their beliefs, values, and thinking patterns to help them live a life of meaning and purpose. He writes about the psychology of money and meaningful living using simple sketches on his Meaningful Money blog. He has been featured in The Wall Street Journal, Nerd’s Eye View, Standard Deviations Podcast, Human Side of Money Podcast, Business Insider, and the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

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