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Ready for Your Optimal Life? First, Ask the Right Questions.

retirement goal setting life planning

Remember the first time an adult you respected told you, “If you’re having a difficult time deciding what is the right thing to do – just listen to your gut. Deep down, if it’s right, you’ll feel it.”

That’s exactly how I felt the first time I was introduced to the concept of appreciative inquiry. After years of providing excellent financial planning service to my clients, the traditional model I’d been trained in just didn’t feel right anymore. As a successful financial advisor helping clients build their net worth, I was questioning the impact I was having. Sure, I was helping them make more money through better investing and financial strategies, but I felt strongly that there was more that I should, and wanted, to be bringing to the table in these relationships.

So I started searching for a way of serving clients that felt right. Then I found Appreciative Moments, by Dr. Ed Jacobson. Appreciative inquiry (AI) is a conversation model that engages stakeholders in self-determined change. The diagram below does a pretty good job illustrating the process of building on the existing positives in a client’s life. My first exposure = Mind Blown. This felt right.

Advice vs. Guidance: Yes, There’s a Difference

I was great at giving my clients financial advice. What I discovered through AI was that even more valuable is the opportunity to offer clients guidance. Advice gives recommendations to solve a problem. Guidance helps someone figure out how they can solve their problem. In my current practice, AI gives me a great communication tool to empower my clients. Through AI, I help them discover their true passions and motivations, and set truly personal, meaningful goals that catapult them into their optimal life.

Let me share an example of why AI is now embedded in our practice.

As I was sitting with a colleague the other day, we started sharing tidbits of interesting stories we are reading on social media. After a few minutes, she stopped. “Frank, what do you think about this?” she asked, handing the phone to me.

I did a quick scan. The blogger had started canning his own food (and just put up 24 jars of pickles). What started out as a test to see how much money he could save putting up his own fruits and vegetables quickly became an obsession. He shared how he delightedly told his friend – also his business coach – how he was saving an average of $1.30 a jar by making his own pickles. His friend-coach’s response, “You’re not really saving money; you’d make more money using the time you spend canning to grow your business.” In other words, according to the 'friend-coach', Time = Money = Value.

Appreciative Inquiry and True Client-Centered Conversations

The article my colleague shared with me that day was a perfect example of traditional advice given in a financial planning relationship. However, I wanted to deliver a different level of professional service to clients – one that helps them identify and achieve their true life’s purpose - their optimal life. The operating assumption of Life Guidance is that more money is not the answer but rather a means to achieving one's optimal life. Appreciative inquiry is the heart of the financial life guidance process. We want to understand, “What is good here? How do we get more of it?”

“Did the author say whether he enjoyed making pickles?” I asked my colleague.


“Maybe he enjoys making pickles,” I speculated. “Maybe, the smell of pickles reminds him of time spent with his extended family, his grandmother. Maybe,” I continued, “he loves the feel of the jars as he fills them and the challenge of measuring the ingredients for the perfect taste. Maybe the real payoff for him is the satisfaction of coming up with different recipes and sharing something he created with others. Maybe his time is really being spent on building business - a new pickling business!

“If his friend-coach didn’t ask any of these questions," I continued, "and the author didn’t ask himself or even know to ask – how does he know the real value of each jar of pickles?” Being empathetic, asking those probing questions -- questions that encourage our clients to truly focus on their emotions and the motives for their behaviors -- this is the value added using appreciative inquiry.

Make Your Own Pickles

By using appreciative inquiry techniques, we can all build richer experiences and relationships with those we care about. When we are truly appreciative and inquiring, we want to ask questions that help us connect with others and appreciate the positives. This is the beginning of true conversation and discovering what's truly important to that client.

The next time you speak to your spouse or your child, instead of asking them, “How was your day?” try it differently with, “Tell me what was great about your day.”

See what happens. See how they respond. See how you feel.

Special thanks for authorship by fellow Alliance of Comprehensive Planners member, Frank J. Corrado, CFP®, CPA, of Holmdel, New Jersey.