Recent scandals have led mainstream media to grouse about the trustworthiness of financial professionals. But pundits aren’t the only ones who have the right to play the honesty card.

Some prospects are too polite to explicitly express lack of interest, and you’re stuck chasing dead leads. And while most clients are truthful, some may inadvertently leave out important information during meetings—be it debt, a difficult family member, or a disagreement among members of a couple. And other clients may deliberately hide key facts that can derail their whole financial plan.

How can you prevent these types of surprises? Learn to detect human emotions by properly interpreting both body language and verbal cues in client meetings.

Read: Use ETFs to hold your cash

“First, you need a sense of a person’s normal behaviour so you have a reference point for identifying changes that may arise at various points in the conversation,” explains Pamela Meyer, author of Liespotting: Proven Techniques to Detect Deception. “You’re looking for deviations from the baseline.”


Dr. Lillian Glass, a former communications professor at the University of Southern California and author of the book Talk to Win, looks at the client’s posture. For example, if clients lean back, that may signal discomfort with the advisor. “They don’t want to get close to you. As an advisor you need to watch your own body language, and that means you need to lean in.”

Read: Get clients to invest outside of Canada

Meyer suggests looking for multiple signals. “A single indicator doesn’t mean much on its own, but becomes significant when it’s part of a larger pattern.”

Other indicators of discomfort include a client stiffening his upper body, rubbing or touching his eyes, tugging on his ears, and curling his feet inward.

Brian King, chairman of the investigations division at CKR Global, notes when he starts asking questions that cause his interview subjects to become nervous or unsettled, they tend to lean toward the door because they want to get out of the room.

Read: Rich are now younger, more ethnically diverse

“You also need to pay attention to their feet,” says Glass. “If their feet are pointing in your direction, it can mean they’re comfortable. But if they’re pointing toward the door, it’s a sign they want out.”

Yet, if a client’s head is cocked to the side, it usually means he’s questioning something. “Take the opportunity to explain your point again,” Glass suggests.

King looks for changes in activity apart from the baseline. If they’re scratching, rubbing, wringing or massaging their hands, and they weren’t before, it’s a sign of major distress. “The key component is changes in their body language during the line of questioning,” he says.

Getting vocal

Advisors should also listen carefully to the client when he talks.

King listens for the pitch of the subject’s voice. When people are angry, you’ll often hear a higher pitch in their voice, while a lower pitch can indicate a sad or gloomy demeanour. Inappropriate laughter and over-the-top politeness are also signs someone may be lying, he says.

“Another thing to look for is conversation stalling. It usually means they’re trying to decide whether to continue lying or to be truthful,” he explains.

Read: Pay for the grandkids’ education

Clients may even start manipulating their physical surroundings to distance themselves from an uncomfortable series of questions.

“If you’re sitting across a desk from someone, the objects on the desk may serve as what we call barrier objects,” Meyer says. “The client may take an object and put it between himself and his interviewer as a way of feeling more secure (see sidebar, “Surroundings matter,” right).