The Couples Conundrum

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Research indicates that majority of male investors would prefer their spouse have a more involved role in money decisions.

Yet, most advisors do not actively include women in their financial discussions. Even those advisors that consider the “couple” as the client rarely view the female partner as a primary client. This can translate into a significant loss of assets for the advisor if they don’t strengthen their relationship and skills working with both partners in a couple. Why? Because nearly 90% of financial accounts fail to remain with an advisor upon the death of the patriarch. However, there is an incredible opportunity for advisors to retain and grow their business if they are willing to reframe how they view, interact and approach investment decisions with couples.

The Problem

Many advisors freely admit that they are not comfortable advising couples. What prevents these advisors from feeling confident working with couples as clients? The reasons can often be found in one of three areas:

  1. Discomfort dealing with the differing communication styles between men and women;
  2. A lack of understanding concerning the different male/female perspective towards finances; and,
  3. Concern about facilitating the conversation between couples on sensitive financial subjects and managing potential conflicts.

Those advisors who are most successful working with couples report that they employ subtle differences in strategy when speaking with a man and/or woman as part of a couple. Therefore the first step in effectively working with a couple is to understand the differences between male and female communication styles.

He Said/She Said—Male/Female Communication Differences

Gender differences in communication are both obvious and subtle. We not only experience them in our everyday interactions with coworkers, friends and spouses, but they are regularly depicted in comedy, theatre, television shows, books and movies.

While we often find humor in these conflicting perspectives as a spectator, it can be extremely frustrating and potentially derail our relationships when we experience these diverse attitudes in our personal and professional lives.

Therefore, understanding gender distinctions in communication is critical for you to work effectively with a couple as their financial advisor.

The role of conversation in men’s and women’s lives is essentially very dissimilar. These variations start in childhood and have both a behavioral and biological component. Understanding these unique gender conversational styles can help us depersonalize certain interactions and reduce our discomfort. It also can help us realize how our interpretation of verbal behavior impacts our response and the outcome of our conversations with clients.

When exploring these issues it is important to remember that there is always a continuum of behavior and not all generalizations are fair or accurate. But, there are certain common patterns in male/female communication that have been observed by sociologists, socio-linguists, psychologists, anthropologists and biologists.

There are basic drive differences for men and women in conversations. In a male world, conversations are negotiations where the priority to achieve and maintain the upper hand. Conversations are hierarchical and the goal is to achieve independence. To admit to being wrong is difficult and for some men unthinkable. This drive for independence manifests itself in men not wanting to “be told what to do.”

Conversely, women approach the world as an individual in a network of connections. In this world conversations are negotiations for closeness, in which they seek and give confirmation and support. The goal is to reach consensus.

Men also use pronouns differently then women. Men will often say “I” instead of we or us. This tends to make women feel excluded from the conversation or plan. Women speak in details, while men tell the big picture. Men tell facts and often express facts as absolutes in their financial discussions with women. As a result they can appear patronizing.

So effective communication between men and women means balancing the conflicting needs for involvement and independence. The problem lies in that coming from these disparate perspectives — men and women are looking for different things from a conversation.

In your role as a financial advisor, how you communicate is critical in counterbalancing these differences and resolving the potential power struggles that can occur between couples — as well as between you and your clients. Ultimately if these concerns are not acknowledged and addressed, both men and women often feel frustrated by their communication encounters with an advisor of the opposite sex.

Different Approaches to Financial Decision-Making

Not surprisingly, when it comes to financial decisions research suggests that women and men can have dramatically different approaches. The goals men set tend to be in terms of reaping concrete monetary awards. Men, generally, want to have reinforcement that they are driving decisions made about finances.

Women are value-focused and consider wealth to be a means less tangible than concrete rewards. They are looking to become educated and empowered, but they need a partner, not necessarily a leader. Women are most often looking to build a relationship with their advisor and are less focused on how that relationship will translate into the realization of a financial goal.

In a research study conducted by Age Wave, on behalf of Alliance Investments, the report discovered the following differences in perspective and financial attitudes between men and women that create conflict for couples: women view themselves as carrying more responsibilities and are therefore burdened with more worries; men see themselves as more analytical and more open to taking risks.

For women, lack of knowledge is their biggest barrier to getting more involved with savings and investments — four times as much a barrier as lack of time. They have a unique financial profile: they want less worry, less aggressive investing, more security and predictability, more simplicity and easier access to understandable financial information.

The lack of savings and too much debt are the major sources of financial conflicts between men and women.

Women are more likely to attribute arguments about money to issues of power and control, while men are more likely to attribute it to trust.

While almost all husbands and wives say the ideal way for a married couple to meet with a financial advisor is for both of them to meet together, nearly half say they act alone. According to wives, husbands overestimate their leadership role when it comes to savings and investments — by a factor of three to one.

There is a disconnect on investing. Four in 10 (or 41%) men describe themselves as high or moderate risk investors versus only 27% of women who tend to describe themselves as balanced or conservative no risk.

Managing Potential Conflict

Now that you understand some of the gender perspectives that can affect your clients’ communication style and financial decision-making, the question becomes how as an advisor can you navigate the conversation and help create consensus in the couple’s financial plans?

The key lies in your ability to understand and relate to each of the partners separately. By doing a thorough assessment of each individual’s financial history, values and concerns, along with identifying their joint issues; you can solidify your role as an objective and empathetic advisor to them both.

As a part of your initial couple assessment it’s important to review any critical life events that may be impacting their current financial decisions.

Each developmental stage of a couples’ life creates the opportunity for growth and exploration of their values. For example, do they have a child going off to college or getting married? Are they caring for a parent who is facing a life-altering disease? Are they considering a career change or retiring in the near future?

Answers to these questions can provide you with incredible insight into the emotions shaping a couple’s immediate financial needs and concerns, as well as impacting their long-term financial goals.

It is during these life-defining events that clients need the help of an advisor that is confident working with them as a couple, to help them address their differences and take control of their financial future.

This article was originally published On Wall Street.


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