One of the crippling temptations advisors face is assuming a prospect or client’s story began when we showed up. Such hubris would be like finding your seat at The Met halfway through Act 3 of Verdi’s “Aida” unaware of the deadly triangle between the warrior Radames, the spurned Pharaoh’s daughter Amneris, and the Ethiopian captive Aida. As operas go, it gets complicated as the lovers Radames and Aida die in each other’s arms, welcoming death, as the curtain drops on Act 4 and the opera ends.
Why do we sit with others in the third act of their life opera revealing little interest in their pre-advisor story? More times than not, we rush to statements, jump into the business landscape as if the story-drama-challenges-triumphs of the previous 50 or 60 years never happened? How do I know this? Because I fight this urge with almost every conversation, I have.
Those who sit with us see it differently. Lying dormant in a client’s minds is a story about parents who scraped and clawed their way through minimum wage jobs to give a son and daughter a better life. Tucked off stage is a faded memory of working nights and weekends to pay for a college education lest, those many years ago, enormous debt compromise a future, holding at bay dreams. And yes, the script of their lives yet unlived is populated with hobgoblins of fear and uncertainty hoping someone they trust could guide them to a better place.
Every time we sit with another–colleague, prospect, friend, spouse, client, child, neighbor—we do so mid-story both for ourselves and the other person. If you please, sharing space with another creates a collision of stories that often erupts in the conversation. “Did I tell you about . . . ?” Or, “That reminds me of something that happened two weeks ago.” “My father was fond of saying . . . .” and “My mother taught me that money was . . . .” When those collisions take place, what is our response? Even more crucial: Do we recognize these story-meetings for what they are?
I am asked often how a story-consciousness shapes my life and practice. All I can say is that placing the power of narrative squarely in the center of my mind creates an awareness that has served my clients and me well. At times I’ve been asked if this works. My response is: How’s your methodology working? What I have learned is that most advisors struggle to find common conversational ground with prospects. Why? Because a prospect, at mid-story, assumes “advisor” is only interested in business. We then confirm that fear when we script our narrative with talk of markets, statements, performance, and ideas.
Going forward, embrace this awareness that every human encounter is mid-story. Invite others to share a memory from their childhood. Surprise someone by asking about that first job when they were a teenager. Ask a couple to share one or two problematic moments from their multi-decades marriage and then marvel at the power of faithfulness and devotion. Should you adopt this approach, notice how your work takes on new meaning even as you re-visit in your own life the wonder, majesty, and significance of your story. When those collisions happen, lives connect, stories merge, and both advisor and client transition to a more sustainable and fulfilling place. Those who only seem adept at swimming in the currents of business and data rarely or ever know such wonder.