By Morey Stettner, Investor’s Business Daily featuring Samantha J. Garcia, CFP®, AIF®, CDFA®, Wealth Advisor at Halbert Hargrove

It’s tough to make it as an advisor if you struggle to listen. Inattentive planners who seem distracted or disinterested rarely rise to the top.

Listening is a skill, not an innate trait. With diligence and practice, almost anyone can improve their ability to capture and retain what others say.

So how do advisors train themselves to listen better? It starts with a commitment to treat every conversation as an opportunity to learn.

If you coast through interactions with prospects and clients, you can probably get the gist of what they’re saying. But you won’t gain the kind of knowledge and insight that enable you to deepen the relationship.

Generally, our rate of speech is between 125 and 150 words per minute. But the brain can process roughly four times as many words per minute, making it easy to daydream even if we try to tune in to a speaker’s remarks.

That’s why it’s important to concentrate fully in the moment. If you allow your mind to wander, you’ll miss the nuances of what you hear.

For advisors, one of the biggest tests of their listening occurs when clients pose questions. Certain themes arise repeatedly, and it’s tempting to lapse into scripted responses to the most common queries.

“Many advisors have a canned response ready when a common question comes up, like a client worrying about inflation,” said Bridget Costello, a Los Angeles-based certified financial planner. “But if we really listen, we can give more precise answers to clients.”

From her 13 years of experience as an advisor, Costello has learned to dig to determine the real question someone is asking. For example, an investor who frets about inflation may harbor an underlying concern about whether their financial plan can withstand severe economic shocks.

Tap The Power Of Silence

Empathy and listening go hand in hand. By seeing a conversation through the other person’s eyes, you’ll come away with a heightened understanding of what’s being said.

In client meetings, Costello harnesses her mental energy to focus on the here and now. Stepping into the client’s shoes, she tells herself, “This is one of the most important conversations they will have all year, like talking with their doctor.”

She takes notes, keeping a running tally of each topic the speaker raises. This way, she doesn’t overlook anything.

“They may talk a lot at the beginning of the meeting,” she said. “I’m always taking notes, so I put a box next to every point they make. Then I check it off once I go back and address it.”

Setting the stage to concentrate helps maximize your attentiveness. Prepare to ward off distractions and you’re better positioned to listen.

Before Samantha Garcia makes a call to a client, she shuts off all notifications and sounds on her phone, minimizes all windows on her computer screen, shuts her office door and closes the windows to reduce background noise.

Eliminating external stimuli is especially important when clients discuss difficulties they face, says Garcia, a certified financial planner in Long Beach, Calif. She also taps the power of silence.

“You have to step back and let them talk more,” Garcia said. “It’s tempting to jump in and give advice,” but it’s better to keep quiet and give speakers ample time to bring up sensitive subjects at their own pace.

Use Questions To Deepen The Relationship

It takes discipline to remain silent when clients grapple with their emotions. If they’re weighing a divorce or coping with the death of a loved one, an advisor may feel obliged to commiserate or provide a comforting word.

“I let them talk through it,” Garcia said. “It took years of learning to bite my lip, but now I do it instinctively.”

By not interrupting, she finds that clients open up more and appreciate her concern and compassion. The ability to listen — and not feel compelled to say something — solidifies the relationship.

Like Costello, Garcia takes notes on a pad to help her listen. She finds that writing reinforces what she hears.

“If it’s a call, I still take notes with pen and paper,” Garcia said. “People might hear you typing on a keyboard,” which can prove distracting.

Listening doesn’t mean you must zip your lips shut the whole time. Succinct, well-timed inquiries play a role as well.

From experience, Garcia has learned when to pose a question to encourage a client to elaborate.

“There are times when instead of accepting what they say at face value, I might ask, ‘What’s driving you to say that?’ or ‘What’s that about?’ to get a deeper understanding,” she said. “I’m more attuned to whether they might be holding back.”

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