“Mindfulness” is a movement on the move. A combination of Eastern philosophy with Western psychology and medicine, its basic tenet is that being “mindful” can have a profound impact on one’s experience in the world. By slowing down and simply noticing emotions, thoughts, and sensations as they occur, one can find a way to reduce stress and ultimately be more at peace in the world. By watching “reality” as though it were clouds passing by, one can learn to avoid getting too attached to the way things are and. in turn. can more easily move toward the way things might be. The goals are both personal and global at the same time. Once considered the purview of cultural outliers, it’s now touted by major corporations and thought leaders. Medical studies are confirming the physiological benefits of meditation and pushing the field forward. And while skeptics remain, the concept is too important to dismiss, especially as it becomes more fully integrated into mainstream culture. I explore below some mindfulness concepts that could fruitfully apply to the advisor-client relationship.
Advisors to private clients come from many backgrounds—law, accounting, finance, to name a few. The professional training and expertise from each of these areas is essential to the work to be done for clients. At the same time, it’s unlikely that most professionals, other than those who’ve come of age in the past few years, have had any training in the theory and practice of mindfulness. Yet, there’s much that could apply to help advisors do their jobs well. For example, by slowing down and looking inward, a financial advisor who’s having difficulty with a client might better understand what’s really happening. By simply noticing the response that gets triggered by a client’s behavior, the advisor might be able to better understand where the line is drawn between what a client is actually doing versus how the advisors interprets what the client is doing. It might create an opportunity to ask more questions rather than rely on assumptions.
In the highly competitive professional world, it can be easy to fail to focus on the client who’s currently on the phone or in the advisor's office, and think instead about a different or future client (say, the current client after a liquidity event, or the client’s children who might someday become clients). Noticing one’s distraction is a first step towards stepping back into the present. Clients can also focus on being present in their interactions with advisors. By turning off the cell phone, allocating a sufficient amount of time for a meeting with a lawyer or trustee or simply taking notes during the meeting, the real work might even get done faster and better.
Anyone who’s been practicing mindfulness for more than a few minutes can attest to how difficult it can be to focus on a specific moment—especially an emotionally charged one—and resist judgment. Some people are practically incapable of viewing their own actions (especially about their finances and estate plans) without finding fault in what they’re doing or even thinking. Others will jump quickly to place blame, or fault, on another person. They might be quick to point out their financial advisor’s investment errors while failing to acknowledge their own part in their financial status. In both cases, each individual would likely do better by first just simply being aware of the situation–looking at it with curiosity—rather than quickly jumping to judgmental conclusions. Yes, it just might be that someone (or something) else is primarily responsible for an unpleasant reality. But rarely is it that simple, and it works better to start with non-judgmental awareness.
To be mindful without judgment isn’t easy. To do so well requires compassion, starting with oneself but extending to others. Every individual faces challenges, most of which barely reach the surface in identifiable ways. If an advisor can feel compassion for a client’s concerns, no matter how trivial they might seem, it’s likely that the client will feel heard. Mysteriously, the client’s behavior often changes in the face of a compassionate response. Similarly, a client who’s able to feel compassion for her own struggles, such as feeling intimidated by the professional aura around her advisors or lack of discipline over family wealth matters, might find that compassion is the first step toward understanding. Changed behavior follows.
It sounds trite to say, “let it go,” especially when the stakes seem so high. A lawyer administering an estate is often faced with a client who holds onto the memory of the deceased person far longer than the advisor might think is healthy. Advisors often go on too long about technical issues that the client “should” care about and feel rebuffed by clients who don’t share their enthusiasm. In both cases, letting go is difficult but necessary to move forward for client and advisor alike.
Mindfulness is far more than the few concepts outlined above and must be experienced to be understood. Yet, it’s possible that merely taking a moment to stop and notice what’s going on, with compassionate non-judgmental awareness, can foster a healthier advisor/ client relationship. And by letting go, both advisor and client might be able to create a new reality that’s more productive and healthier in the future.