Lessons from a psychologist

By Mira Shenker | January 16, 2015 | Last updated on January 16, 2015
3 min read

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Psychologists don’t just know how to ask hard questions tactfully; they know how to ask the right questions.

We talked to Montreal-based clinical psychologist Dr. Perry Adler about how to find out what your clients really want and why.

Problem: Clients express a broad goal, but aren’t sure why they’re consulting an expert.

Solution: “The first thing I ask a patient is what they hope to get out of working with me; what their problems are,” says Adler. “Then, as I’m identifying their goals, I ask, ‘Say I wave my magic wand and that problem magically disappears—what other problems are you having in your life?’ ”

He also finds out what clients think their problems are so he can better understand their goals. “I’m prepared to hear virtually anything mentioned as a problem—panic attacks, health problems, an obnoxious co-worker,” he says. This helps him develop the diagnosis and treatment plan. Rather than asking, “What’s your degree of risk taking?” (most will say “medium”), ask, “What are your worries?” If, for example, someone is anxious about sudden illness or injury, there’s a good chance that’s going to affect her decision-making process. “They’re likely to be less interested in long-held assets. Or, paradoxically, they might chase risk because they figure they’ll be dead in a year.”

Problem: Getting to know your client on a more personal level means you’ll have to ask some invasive questions, and that can get awkward.

Solution: Make sure there’s some preamble or a segue to introduce the difficult question. Adler teaches at the Herzl Family Practice Centre at Montreal’s Jewish General Hospital, where he advises students on how to question teens about their sexual histories. He instructs them first to say, “Now I’m going to be asking you questions about sex,” and then explain from a physician’s point of view why this is an important issue to discuss. “The teen then understands that you’re not just a voyeur because you’ve explained the rationale behind your line of questioning,” explains Adler. This approach helps diffuse awkwardness around sensitive topics.

Problem: Clients often hold back, providing one-word answers to even the most tactfully posed questions.

Solution: Ask open-ended questions. “I almost slap the wrists of my trainees when I hear them asking close-ended or leading questions,” says Adler. For instance, saying, “You’re probably a medium-risk person, right?” won’t get you very far with a new client. Adler says he would first explain that it’s important to establish how much risk a client is willing to take as an investor. Then he’d define what different levels of risk would mean. Finally, he’d ask, “Given what I’ve just explained about risk, what level of risk would you like to take in investing your money?”

“If their answer is still sparse,” he says, “you’ll need to ask follow-up questions until you get what you need.”

Problem: Even after follow-up questions, your client is still holding back information.

Solution: “At a certain point, you need to address the resistance,” says Adler. The best way to probe for more information? Channel your inner Colombo. “[This TV detective] was a great character because he was brilliant but acted befuddled, so he disarmed people. He wasn’t aggressive. He was just curious, and that’s the best way to be when you’re interviewing someone who’s resistant.” Adler says a key approach is to say, “Help me understand what this resistance is about. What are you worried will happen if you answer these questions?”

by Mira Shenker, a Toronto-based financial writer.

Mira Shenker