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Defusing Political Emotions

As you know, I read the trade magazines (including online sources like Advisor Perspectives and and report on the various articles,.  This gives me some insight not only into trends in the profession, but into the reporting on them.  

Recently, I’ve noticed an area where there is a huge trend but the reporting has been unusually timid: clients are increasingly politically polarized, and increasingly strident and insistent on their political beliefs.  Many advisors don’t know what to do when the conversation keeps being pulled away from planning into politics.  There are now, for the first time in my career, people who will refuse to work with somebody whose political views are contrary to their own, and they will persistently try to engage their advisor to find out which side of the right/left divide they fall on.

There was what I considered to be an unsatisfying discussion of this topic in the Nerd’s Eye View site (between Carl Richards and Michael Kitces) and a brief report on that discussion in Financial Advisor magazine—and beyond that, on a huge issue in the real world of advisor/client relationships—nothing.  

Why?  I can speculate that most writers in this space don’t want to be pulled into an increasingly contentious arena, and they especially don’t want to turn off what pollsters tell us is half of their readership population, whichever side the readers think they’re coming down on.  So they ignore the issue, even as it is becoming more front-and-center for advisors around the country.

Do I have some advice to offer?  Maybe.  I happen to have grown up politically liberal—particularly on social issues, where my inner-city basketball experiences taught me to respect the (predominately) black colleagues I was competing with, and where some gay friends in college gave me invaluable advice about my wardrobe and dating relationships.  (Not to mention some extremely valuable help I received with my Chemistry and Physics courses.)  

Then, a few years after college, I moved into Newt Gingrich’s home district in Cobb County, GA, to a town that had recently passed an ordinance requiring residents to own a handgun.  (No, I’m not kidding.)

I should also say that I respected the Republican Party that I grew up with, for producing towering political figures like Nelson Rockefeller, George Romney and Dwight Eisenhower—a party which also seemed to take a reliably business-like approach to government. 

For about 12 years, I was politically isolated in a very red area of the country, and because I am who I am, I got into a lot of conversations about the world, about politics, about the things about this country that I liked and the many things I wished were different.  If the conversation was moving into politics, I would tell the other person that I leaned hard left on a lot of issues (sometimes I would say that I was left of Mao and Che, though that actually wasn’t true), and so they should understand from the outset where I was coming from as we continued to talk.  

But mostly, I listened.  I have never had a great need to convert anyone to my own (possibly dysfunctional) way of thinking except, perhaps, on the topic of a fiduciary standard, and so I would hear the other person’s comments, and then inquire about them, in order to understand, before I opened my own mouth, what, exactly, the other person was thinking, where that person got his or her information, what was the underlying ground of his or her political belief system.

I think, sometimes, that this was more annoying to the other person than if I had stridently expressed views contrary to their own.  In many cases, wherever the other person was on the political spectrum, it would turn out that about three questions into this discussion, they would uncomfortably discover that their beliefs had been developed more out of emotion than fact, and if pressed, they would have a hard time defining the hard facts behind their beliefs.  This is not just confined to people on the right end of the spectrum; brain science tells us that most of our decisions and belief systems are coming from the emotional parts of our brains, and then the logical brain looks for facts to justify what has already been decided at a deeper level than most of us can access rationally.

But what I also found, while being annoying, is that most people are more interested in being heard than in convincing.  They want to let those very strong emotions out.  Often, the first expression is confrontational, what I would interpret as an invitation to fight (most often verbally, but sometimes there was an undercurrent of a physical confrontation), and if the response was curiosity instead of confrontation, what often followed was a surprisingly rational, even friendly conversation between people with very different ways of looking at the world.  I actually made many friends in Cobb County, GA, and neither of us required the other to vote in a certain way in order to hang out together.

What I mostly believe about the very strong, polarized beliefs that I see around me today is that all of us could use a strong dose of humility about what we know and what we think we know.  I’ve always felt that Socrates stumbled onto a great insight when, after being told by the Oracle of Delphi that he was the wisest man in the world, he realized that that could only be true because he alone fully embraced the realization of how little he (and everybody else) actually knew about our human reality.  

Brain science tells us that when we’re responding to questions, rather than engaging in verbal combat, the higher cognitive parts of the brain are allowed to reassert themselves, and the conversation can be led to a more productive and less emotional plane.  That, of course, is necessary if the advisor and client are to become thinking partners about the client’s financial life.  

The one article I’ve seen about how advisors can deal with clients who want to aggressively impose their political agenda on their financial plan seemed to conclude that if you can’t get the client to stop talking about politics, you need to end the relationship.  My own take, which has worked pretty well in my own experience, is that we all need to do a better job of listening to each other, and probing what’s behind the political views of those around us.  

I grew up in a simpler place and time when that kind of civility was taken for granted, and I readily admit that my own formula isn’t easy or guaranteed of success.  My hope is that advisors, by necessity, will become the early pioneers in leading us back to that much-more-civil level of discourse once again.