The Psychology of Advising

The retirement plan adviser – deans of diversification, masters of money management, and… psychologist?
By None

We have the “retirement plan” part down cold, but what about the “adviser” part? What does it mean to be an effective adviser to today’s modern plan sponsors and participants? What skills should we enhance to earn that full title?

The retirement planning process is designed to replace emotions with logic and discipline. But we still deal with peoples’ hopes, dreams, fears, needs, and life experiences. Plan advisers would be wise to take some lessons from the world of psychiatry and perfect the critical skills we share with our shrink colleagues. These include interviewing, active listening, and an understanding how our clients learn and make decisions. By doing so, we make ourselves more competitive professionals and ultimately, better help our clients.

Master Communicator

Clients assume you have technical expertise and know the retirement plan world inside out.  But now it’s time for more subtlety, more bedside manner.  Sponsors face many pressures including an urgent desire to maximize participation and improve participant outcomes. To help, they need you to be a master communicator.

We talk to different audiences that range in size, structure and financial sophistication. Each comes with its own expectations, learning styles and decision-making skills and it’s up to us to adapt.

It helps to ask yourself:

·         How well do I explain things so that my clients not only understand, but are inspired to make smart choices and actually DO something?

·         Can I adjust my delivery style to fit the intellectual and emotional needs of my audience?

·         Do I communicate proactively and anticipate challenging issues before they arise?

·         During difficult times, do I convey trust, confidence, reliability and control?

·         Does the organization view me as an outside service provider or a true partner to their success?

Active Listening

Group communication skills are vital to your success, but you may also find yourself in conversation with individual owners, small management teams, or boards. Now talking takes a back seat and active listening steps up. 

Active listening isn’t just about being quiet—although for most people that would be miracle enough.  It’s necessary to inject energy and commitment to the listening process. Psychiatrists are specially trained in how to listen effectively to what is said and not said. They probe the emotional content and are able to elicit insights that impact their treatment plan. They dig below what they call “manifest content” and get down to the real issues affecting their clients.

In our world, a client’s simple question about fees or benchmarking may be a superficial issue. A deeper dive may reveal other potential challenges the client is facing including pressure from above to make more radical changes in the plan or even a reorganization of power that could ultimately undermine your position.

Active listening starts with genuine interest—you must WANT to understand. That honest desire is critical and can be demonstrated by using some simple but highly effective techniques in a conversation:

·         Use supportive and reflective language to indicate your interest like, “That’s really interesting…tell me more.”   Or “What happened then?”

·         Probe for deeper meaning and clarification with, “Let me make sure I understand you.” 

·         Stay focused on the client and avoid turning the conversation back to you with, “That’s just like what happened to me when...”

·         Don’t rush to display understanding with, “Sure…I know exactly what you mean!” 

·         Uncover the emotional landscape of the message with, “How does that make you feel?”

·         Avoid judgmental phrases like, “That’s crazy!” or “You’ve got to be kidding!”  These can stop a story in mid-sentence.

These are just some very basic elements of active listening. The process takes study and practice to master as well as significant energy to implement. Paying attention is very hard work, but it’s worth every effort. 

Learning & Decision Styles

Understanding how you and your clients process and organize information, deal with change, and react to new ideas can be invaluable. One powerful tool I recommend plan advisers use themselves and then with key decision-makers is the Kolbe A Index. It’s a simple and inexpensive assessment test that reveal a person’s deepest instincts and behaviors. Knowing someone’s Kolbe score will help you serve their needs in a truly customized manner. It’s much deeper than mere “personality” and is one of the most powerful things you could ever do in a relationship. Plus it differentiates you from every other adviser in their world.

In conclusion

Modern advisers are true students of the mind – never in a manipulative or sales driven way, but as part of our effort to strengthen the bond of trust and help our people succeed.


Frank Maselli is a professional speaker, best-selling author and 30-year veteran of the financial services industry. Maselli has presented to the largest and most successful organizations in the industry, training thousands of advisers and managers each year in advanced marketing, sales leadership and modern practice management techniques. His two books, “Seminars: The Emotional Dynamic” and “Referrals: The Professional Way” are changing the way top advisers market and grow their business. He is a member of the National Speakers Association, Mensa and IMCA and is the founder of The Financial Lifeguard Academy.  For more information about Frank Maselli and The Maselli Group, please visit or call  (800) 231-5272.


NOTE: This feature is to provide general information only, does not constitute legal advice, and cannot be used or substituted for legal or tax advice.