Advisors hear them all the time: empty promises for change. And it is a struggle. It is a struggle for the client because they know they want to change and are paying their financial advisor to help them with that change. Yet, they do not move forward. It is also a struggle for the advisor because it is confusing and uncomfortable to ‘fight’ with a client about making a change when the client themselves was the one who said they wanted to implement the change… and now they just want to argue about seeing it through!
Yet, what the financial advisor and client are both often oblivious to is how change happens. And this is no one’s fault – no one teaches the Transtheoretical Model (TTM) of change except for psychology professors (although even 3rd graders would benefit from learning about how to change – advocating for a better understanding of the change process would create a more change-friendly world!). But without understanding how change happens, it will be challenging to work with clients and figure out how to make it happen.
In the Transtheoretical Model (TTM), Pre-Contemplation is the first stage of the change process. In this stage, clients might not be aware that change is important, or more likely, they have identified the change and might even be able to recite a ‘why’ or two (e.g., retirement sounds fun… someday), but they still have no intention to see this change through (e.g., I have no intention to actually stop going out for coffee or to set up a savings plan). In other words, Pre-Contemplators not only don’t change… they aren’t even really thinking about what it would take to do it.
The central issue in the Pre-Contemplation stage is that clients often get stuck and resist change, even when they acknowledge they should change. Which can be confusing (and frustrating!) to the financial advisor after having just heard the client claim they want to implement changes to reach their goals, followed by the client actively defending their current behavior instead of working to implement the change!
So what should financial advisors do? Arguing with the client generally won’t help. And many times, more client education won’t help either. Enter James and Janice Prochaska, the authors of Changing to Thrive, who have written about what people need at each stage of the change process. Individuals in the Pre-Contemplation stage often feel ambivalent and are probably feeling somewhat disheartened by earlier attempts to change. This can result in anxiety over trying again, and defensiveness of current behavior to avoid having to try again.
The Prochaskas suggest some strategies that advisors can use to help clients, such as coming up with positive reasons for change (instead of the negative outcomes from not implementing the change), educating not on the ‘what’ but on the ‘how’ (because clients often don’t know what exactly they need to do), and spending time addressing clients’ deeper motivations for changing. The Prochaskas also developed worksheets to help people engage in change, which can be easily adapted to address changes that financial planning clients may need to make. These can give advisors a process-oriented strategy to address their clients’ issues, and can make having these potentially sensitive conversations with clients less intimidating.
Because the key point is that while change can be hard, it does have a process to it. If financial advisors understand the change process and what their clients are working toward, then they can implement a systematic way to discuss change with their clients. And by recognizing that action is not yet required in the Pre-Contemplation stage (instead, it is just about recognizing the importance of change and moving toward the Contemplation stage), advisors can help their clients more easily accept the changes they need to make. Change still won’t happen overnight, but that is okay. By guiding their clients through the steps of the change process, advisors will feel less confused and more empowered in their conversations with clients, and clients will be more likely to accept (and eventually take action on) the changes they need to make!