Three Words You Want To Hear From Your Financial Advisor

From early childhood, we are conditioned to believe that the faster and more emphatically someone responds to a question, the more intelligent they are. In grade school, we quickly learn that we will be rewarded for being the first to raise our hand, or by writing the clearest, most specific answer to the essay question. These characteristics might be accurate signs of intelligence when the question is about empirical facts (What’s 1,024 divided by 8? The capital of Idaho? The speed of sound?), but many questions about

wealth and investing are complex questions of opinion. Questions such as: “Are interest rates going to rise this year?”, “Is the stock market going to fall soon?” or “Should I use some of my assets to pay off my mortgage?” are not asking for facts. As a result, the initial answer you should expect from a valuable advisor is:

“I’m not sure…”

Most people feel some level of frustration with this response. Is my advisor not knowledgeable enough? Is he not paying attention? Should I look for someone else? But these feelings are simply a misguided extrapolation of the traits that were ingrained in our youth. “I’m not sure…” is in fact the initial response you should be seeking, for a number of reasons:

First, “I’m not sure…” acknowledges that uncertainty exists and no one knows the future. It sets up the fact that the path we eventually choose could, through no fault of our own, end up being the wrong one. However, it seems many advisors are hesitant to utter these words. Some are probably insecure and afraid their clients will perceive them as ignorant, while others are overconfident and inappropriately believe they know the answer immediately. It is natural for you to feel comfort when your advisors are demonstrably confident, but this is often unwise. Overconfidence often leads to mistakes that may be detrimental to your wealth, such as your advisor trading too much because he believes he can time the markets or taking inappropriate risk by concentrating your assets because he believes he can see the future.

“Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge”—Charles Darwin

The second reason “I’m not sure…” is the best answer, is that it means your thoughtful advisor is interested in gathering more information to help him/her give you a more informed, more specific, answer. She might ask you additional questions to better understand the background for your question. She might review historical market data to assess how often the event you are concerned about has occurred in the past. Whatever the additional information, it will allow her to give you an answer that is more specific to you and your financial situation.

Finally, advisors who are students of human behavior know that an initial response of “I’m not sure…” allows their brain the benefit of slowing down. In his best-selling book “Thinking, Fast and Slow” Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman portrays our brains as having two systems: System 1 is our “thinking fast” system. It is mostly unconscious and makes quick judgments based on emotions and past experiences. If we hear an unusual noise in the bushes, System 1 instinctively tells us to run from it. System 1 was refined in prehistoric times with the purpose of keeping us alive as a species, but in many ways when we use this system to answer complex questions we are as likely to be wrong as right. Kahneman’s System 2 is our “thinking slow” system. It is fact-checking and logical. However, our brain is “wired” such that System 2 is easily distracted and difficult to engage. That is, it is challenging for any of us to get past our initial reactions and emotions to evaluate the facts. Kahneman suggests that if we can find ways to get our System 2 to engage on complex questions more often, we are apt to make better decisions. Giving an initial answer of “I’m not sure…” is one way advisors can do exactly that for your benefit.

While, “I’m not sure…” is the only honest answer to many financial questions, it isn’t sufficient unless it is accompanied by “…let’s talk about it.” That discussion, where a good advisor should ask you related questions, discuss the variables or trade-offs involved and illustrate different outcomes and their possible impact on your wealth, is where the real, valuable advice lies. So, the next time you ask your advisor a question and he doesn’t produce an immediate, decisive answer, don’t penalize him for it. Honest, thoughtful advice is a fleeting trait in a world becoming bombarded by blogs, tweets and 60-second “sound bites” from so-called experts.

“Doubt is not a pleasant condition, but certainty is an absurd one.”—Voltaire