Navigating political conversations with clients

As a hands-on chief investment officer at Commonwealth, I find myself talking to hundreds of advisers and their clients every year. They call me with questions about economics and the state of the markets — and occasionally they call about politics. When a nation is as politically divided as we are, it’s difficult to provide good advice that people are willing to receive.

Recently, more advisers have asked me how to respond to these questions. How can they help clients without politics getting in the way? As an adviser, you’re a key part of your clients’ lives, and you are privy to some of the most intimate details of family dynamics and health status.

It’s no surprise then that clients may also share with you their opinions, worries or even anger about current events and that these may be at odds with your own opinions and values. With advisers serving a more diverse group of clients than ever before, political conversations and other discussions about emotionally charged topics may become unavoidable, as will the internal conflict between your role as a financial services professional and your opinion as a private citizen.

Naturally, discussing current events — especially now — is a concern no matter where you stand. More than that, any stand you take may make you less effective for clients who need your help. And you can’t say you have no opinions, because of course you do.

Here are some strategies I recommend for handling these challenging topics with professionalism and grace when you just can’t avoid the conversation.

Distinguish between your personal and professional self. You have two roles: one as a citizen, in which you may hold very strong opinions, and one as a financial adviser, in which all that matters is the data. By decoupling the two, you acknowledge you have your own opinions, but that they are less relevant to the discussion with your client.

You might say something like this: “As a citizen, I certainly have my own opinions, which may or may not be the same as yours. As your adviser, however, they don’t matter. My job here is to help you navigate the uncertainty around these events in your investments, not in the rest of your life. Because of that, we can look at the economic and market facts — which is what I am here to do — and make a decision that is best for you. My only concern, sitting in this chair, is your financial future.” This is effective no matter where you or your client land on the political spectrum.

Help clients understand why this distinction works for them. Demonstrate why the approach above works in practical terms. For example, consider your experience in the previous two election cycles, where clients on different sides wanted to sell out following the outcome of the 2012 and 2016 elections. In both cases, it would have been a mistake. This is a good follow-up, as you can look directly at emotional decisions, tie them back to the factual results and make the point that as an investor, data is what is needed most, and that is your job.

[More: Would clients switch advisers over politics?]

Reorient your clients’ focus on the long game. Your role as an adviser isn’t to change your clients’ opinions. All you can do is make the case that however good or bad things are now, as investors, we need to be focused on the long-term outcomes, not the short-term headlines. Focus on communicating what you know and have been tasked to do, and on examining markets and economics rather than politics to help investors navigate the current turmoil. Explain to your clients that achieving their financial goals unfolds over a long period of time — decades, a generation, even longer — much longer than any one administration or even overriding political climate.

When neutrality matters. Finally, it’s important to remember that your position of neutrality doesn’t mean you are neutral. Your personal feelings do matter — to you. But they may not be helpful to your clients, and it’s crucial to be able to separate the two in order to serve both well.

Brad McMillan is managing principal and chief investment officer at Commonwealth Financial Network.

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