Hi. I’m David Richman with Eaton Vance Advisor Institute. Acknowledging the strengths of a prospective or existing client and learning about their passions early on in the relationship can be such valuable steps to chasing positivity. Why? Because it conveys your interests lie not just where life intersects with money, yet where life intersects with life. Let’s dive deeper into what this really means for you as an advisor.

My long-time friend and collaborator, Dr. Robert Brooks, a renowned clinical psychologist, years ago coined the phrase “islands of competence.” In all new patient engagements, he leads with this notion of trying to discover the patient’s strengths and passions, these “island of competence.” Now prior to this approach, he would lead initial therapy sessions with new patients with a discussion about their problems. For example, if he was seeing a child in therapy, the first session would always be with parents. These conversations almost exclusively would focus on the difficulties the child was having. Often at the end of those initial therapy sessions, both Dr. Brooks and the patient’s parents seemed a bit more depressed.

After an especially difficult day, Dr. Brooks shared with me a number of years ago, he had concluded that his patients were, in his phrase, drowning in an ocean of adequacy, and this triggered for him an important revelation. He wondered if there’s an ocean of inadequacy, perhaps there must be islands of competence, and that’s where the phrase was born, and it was at that point precisely he changed his approach. Now, he still would start sessions quickly trying to understand the patient’s problems. Then, he would quickly though pivot, and he would start to attempt to uncover their passions and their strengths, these “islands of competence.”
What occurred for Dr. Brooks was transformative. He was seeing now each patient as a whole person, not just someone coming in with problems, and his patients began to see themselves in the same way. What was Dr. Brooks doing? He was creating positive emotion. As you know, positive emotions lead others to more likely become more open and become better problem solvers and more receptive to discussion. Think about this. What if you got to know a prospective client as a whole person first before diving into their financial concerns? Right from the get-go, you would be creating positive emotions and fostering a motivating environment for that prospective client to become more receptive, more willing to listen to your ideas and possibly become inspired to move forward with you as their advisor.

Here’s an example to help us kind of visualize how you can lead with islands of competence. Suppose you were introduced to a young couple, John and Lisa. They’re in their mid-30s. They’re married. They’re both in software sales. They’ve been absolutely crushing it over the past several years generating a combined annual income in the very high six figures. Flush with cash, John has been taking up investing with a relatively new online trading platform. He’s so proud of his outsized returns generated by investing in just a handful of high-flying stock.

John and Lisa came to you through a referral. The reason for the desire to meet is because they have been having disagreements about money. Lisa first shares with you in this meeting that they have very different opinions about how much to save, how much to invest and how much to use to enjoy in their lifestyle. John feels good about their professional and his investment successes and believes that they can spend quite liberally that he should remain in full control of their investments and kind of all is good. Lisa clearly feels otherwise. It becomes pretty obvious from the things they’re sharing that these differences of opinion have been taking a significant toll on their still relatively young marriage.

How might you handle this situation? Often, our first inclination might be to step in and take charge of this fragile situation, kind of acting like a sage parent showcasing our expertise. That approach can be a recipe for failure. Now imagine instead what might transpire if you sought to create positive emotion by discovering the couple’s “islands of competence.” So here’s how a conversation might unfold. After some introductions, the advisor might say, “I found that the most effective way for me to advise couples in situations similar to yours is to first learn more about each of your passions and strengths. It helps me better understand the bigger picture so that then I can offer personalized guidance to help you live the life you envision.”

Now, the advisor could proceed by asking Lisa to describe her passion and interests as well as what she perceives to be her strengths then ask the same of John. What if the following was uncovered? We find that Lisa, very good saver and budgeter, not at all interested in learning about investing. She would much rather spend any free time she has learning more about how to become a great micro farmer while also playing tennis. It turns out Lisa is a semi-pro tennis player as is John, and they have a membership at an exclusive hall of fame tennis club costing them $50,000.00 a year. John, we might find out, loves the thrill associated with investing versus having an interest in really being a student of markets. He has amassed a huge wine collection as well, investing well in excess of $20,000 a year in wine and participating in numerous wine clubs. You see what’s going on here. I don't need to really spell it out further.

What if we were to walk through some approaches to create a motivating environment that might inspire John and Lisa to engage in a long-term relationship? Perhaps if this were you, you might propose creating a financial plan that considers their life goals, helps them craft a budget that allocates a level of discretionary spending for them to choose funding whichever hobbies they agree upon. You might also suggest that John maintain a small investment portfolio that he manages thus giving him the continued thrill of investing while hopefully minimizing any lasting collateral damage to their financial well-being if it doesn’t generate the kinds of returns he’s grown accustomed to. Perhaps you also would propose building an investment strategy, a savings game plan that you would manage that will be the majority ultimately of their total investments. Given Lisa’s interest in micro farming, maybe you even introduce them to the possibility of including environmental, social, and governance-type investing strategies in the portfolio.

Just think about how having first led with “islands of competence” might have transformed your initial discussion with John and Lisa. For starters, Lisa might feel a sense of relief, and while she’s feeling that relief, John might also realize that he can still enjoy the thrill of picking stocks without jeopardizing his marriage. Perhaps they proceed and sign on as your client. Understanding and honoring a prospective or existing client’s “islands of competence” can help you more effectively create positive emotions, create a motivating environment. This approach creates an atmosphere of collaboration. Ultimately, it can inspire the other person to take actions that are likely to be in their best interest.

To discover more about growing your business by potentially even transforming how you engage with others, we invite you to explore all the resources available on eatonvance.com/ChasingPositivity. We at Eaton Vance are absolutely committed to helping you build stronger, deeper relationships with your clients, with your team members and with your prospective clients. 

Until next time, wishing you all the best.

The views expressed in these posts are those of the authors and are current only through the date stated. These views are subject to change at any time based upon market or other conditions, and Eaton Vance disclaims any responsibility to update such views. These views may not be relied upon as investment advice and, because investment decisions for Eaton Vance are based on many factors, may not be relied upon as an indication of trading intent on behalf of any Eaton Vance fund. The discussion herein is general in nature and is provided for informational purposes only. There is no guarantee as to its accuracy or completeness. Past performance is no guarantee of future results.

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