A Five-Step Plan for Awkward Political Conversations
Advisor Perspectives welcomes guest contributions. The views presented here do not necessarily represent those of Advisor Perspectives.
Given the upcoming election, advisors are going to be hijacked into awkward political conversations with clients. Here are five ways to handle those cringey dialogues you just don’t want to have.
Why you need to be prepared
Maybe a client is talking about politics because they are genuinely concerned about the impact on their portfolio. Or, perhaps they are making polite conversation or looking to get attention by grandstanding.
Whatever the reason, you need to be prepared.
Let’s talk about the risks you face if you go into the election season without a safety plan:
- Conversations get sidetracked and led astray;
- Disagreements arise that may cause unvoiced resentment;
- Awkward moments that build tension;
- If their political fears are unaddressed, they will become dominant and want to take a more active role in managing their money; or
- You will miss the opportunity to understand the emotional source of their political concerns, and this dissonance will lead to other problems in the relationship.
Is it politics or power?
Many times when people talk about politics, they are just projecting their feelings about something over which they feel helpless. They are indirectly showing you their fears. Think about it – there are these elected officials who have control over our lives and we have limited ways to influence them. They are talking about what they wish they had more power to control, but can’t.
When a client talks about politics, underneath it all is a signal about what is important to them in their lives. Here are examples of my political views and how it reflects what matters to me:
- I’m worried about gun safety. I have four children, I love all children, and the school shootings break my heart.
- I’m worried about future pandemics and how our leadership will address this. I felt helpless being quarantined with four kids during COVID and it will be torture to go through this over and over.
This is a valuable opportunity to get to know your clients. Your first effort should be to listen, take notes and try to figure out what the person is expressing helplessness over.
Five ways to handle uncomfortable political conversations with clients
I have a five-step method for handling these situations:
Silence is a powerful tool for strengthening the trust between two people. Unfortunately, in our society it’s viewed as rude.
Having four kids under seven years old, I have learned that your response to someone’s utterances largely dictates what they do next. Selectively ignoring certain behaviors has saved me from having to run to the bathroom, lock the door and scream into the towels every five minutes. Don’t get me wrong – I still have to do that – but the frequency has decreased to every 20 minutes.
People speak thoughtlessly all the time. They may express a political view, but if it is of low importance to them, they will not persist with it if you ignore it. This will weed out the casual comments that don’t have any real meaning attached to them.
Your first response should be to selectively ignore their comments and see how they respond. This is how you find out if this is a real issue for them or just something they were saying to make conversation. Remain nonplussed and redirect the conversation to other topics. Watch and see how they respond. Most of the time it will not recur.
They say, “It seems like any bozo can run for president nowadays.”
You smile, chuckle, nod, and say, “I wasn’t sure if you were aware of this or not, but we’re coming close to your RMD deadline for the year.”
2. Attempt humor
Let’s say you attempt to ignore and the client persists. Your next move is to make a casual joke and then immediately try to redirect the conversation.
They say, “Who knows if there will be any Medicaid at all if the XYZ party gets into office.”
You say, “So I get the feeling you aren’t in favor of the possible future administration’s stance on healthcare reform. Did you want to filibuster or can we move on to reviewing your bond portfolio?”
Again, this is a test to see what their intentions are. See what they say.
3. Refer to educational materials
If the client persists through steps #1 and #2 and it seems like they are seeking information, here’s your next move. Refer them to educational materials, either that you have created or that you can provide to them.
Client says, “If XYZ gets elected, I’m moving to Canada.”
Examples of what you could say:
- It seems like your concerns are similar to what clients typically have expressed. We’ve written this up in a recent blog that you can find here on the website.
- Are you getting our newsletters? We address a question of the week and if you like we can answer your concerns on the election outcome this week.
- We have a memo from XYZ research that addresses this exact topic. I’ll send it to you.
4. Address it head on
Let’s say it gets to the point where it’s clear the client has a meaningful concern or opinion and it’s not going away. Address it within the framework of how you can help, which emphasizes long-term planning and investment strategies.
Don’t let their short-term concerns derail you. Stick to the facts, don’t talk red or blue, and don’t express your personal opinion. Your goal is to uncover what their political sentiment reflects about a feeling of control they want to gain in their lives.
They say, “I have a serious concern about what is going to happen if XYZ wins.”
Example of what you could say:
Sanjay, several times you’ve brought up the idea of XYZ winning and that you feel this would have a negative impact on the economy. While we have limited control over these results, we do have an ability to influence how your life will be impacted by the financial changes this may bring.
Let’s start here. What is your #1 concern – is it your portfolio, your Social Security payment or your taxes?
This approach will allow you to stay focused on taking positive action while addressing their emotional concerns.
Let’s say you take step #4 and the client does any of the following:
- Refuses to honor boundaries;
- Has questions you can’t answer;
- Disagrees strongly with your firm’s political views and the economic research you have done; or
- Isn’t satisfied by what you offer.
Example, “I want to sell my whole portfolio to cash. I just don’t trust the XYZ political party and I think they’re going to win.”
Keep trying to make step #4 work. Make several strong attempts. But if you can’t, it’s time to call in the reserves.
Here’s your move. You should have resources that you can refer them to, whether it is a vendor partner (the firm that manages your ETFs, for example), the chief economist at your company, etc. How is this different from step #3? These are live resources. It can be a conference call, webinar, or even consulting with a person. If you are a small shop without these resources, you will have to gain access to these resources by creating a strategic partnership.
I answer a question each week on my podcast. If you have questions on this or other topics, please send me a message and I’ll be happy to answer.
Sara Grillo, CFA, is a marketing consultant who helps investment management, financial planning, and RIA firms fight the tendency to scatter meaningless clichés on their prospects and bore them as a result. Prior to launching her own firm, she was a financial advisor.