The Aspen Family Business Group recently hosted a multi-disciplinary conference at Cannon Beach, Oregon. There, with the crashing of ocean waves as our soundtrack and incredible natural beauty as our backdrop, 20 advisors from a variety of professional specialties joined together to share our passion for counseling with families in business.
The goal of the conference was to pass along both explicit and tacit knowledge about working with families in business, and to share in collaboration with other advisors. As the weekend progressed, a rich sharing of thought and insight unfolded. The advisors truly bonded together over a similar passion to share the wisdom garnered from their time in the trenches with families.
One of the skills we explored was the ability to ask reflective questions—the nature of which cause the person being asked to pause and reflect. These types of questions open dialogue rather than ending it. This skill was demonstrated in a “live case study” created by the group. Problems were manufactured around the theme of a business succession crisis in a family business. They ranged from a major health problem inserting the urgency to a rift in the family over an addiction issue to an unclear succession path and several business or financial issues. The insights gained by watching skilled specialists in different disciplines ask questions exposed the breadth of the family’s issues. From the reluctance of the senior generation to face the urgency of the succession situation to the fact that the bank or a non-family partner could call in notes and essentially shut down the business, a range of problems and issues were identified. As Einstein said, “A problem identified is half solved.” This scope in questioning demonstrated the importance of having different disciplines involved, and that collaboration to understand the full range of issues while working together to devise solutions for the family is key.
For years, we have looked for insightful and thoughtful questions. We have searched for questions that will reframe a problem in a different light and cause the person being questioned to pause and say, “I have never thought about the problem that way.” We learned just such a question a few years ago. As the story goes, an advisor was having a first time meeting with a very affluent person at a Starbucks. The meeting was winding down with the fatal result for any advisor trying to move to an action step, the client said, “Great to meet you, but I think I have all my ducks in order and I am all set.” The advisor then asked, “Would you mind if I asked just one more question? How would things be going both operationally and personally in your family if you had passed away 90 days ago?” As the advisor related to us, with this question came three hours of discussion that culminated in the client agreeing to hire the advisor. When asked later on why he had hired him, he relayed that every other advisor had asked a similar question but in the future tense, “What would happen if you died five years from now?” he said, “But you put me in the picture by asking what would be happening if I died 90 days ago. You made me realize where all the missing elements of my plan existed and motivated me to action.” I have used that question ever since.
I had the opportunity to study an address by Dean James Ryan from his 2016 Commencement speech for the Harvard Graduate School of Education. He put forth the premise that searching for great questions and then using them in all kinds of situations—with family, with friends, at work with fellow employees, or with clients—would help others and increase our value to those around us. He then described five questions which at first seem quite ordinary, but upon reflection provide a way to see past the easy answers and to focus instead on the information behind the answer that gives us so much insight into the real problems that exist.
Here are the five questions Dean Ryan suggested could open the door to deeper insight:
The first is “Wait, what? ” The “wait” is the stop sign when we hear something that is important but needs further clarification. “What” could be asked in various forms several times until we have the clarification crucial to a full understanding. The “what” keeps us from jumping to conclusions about the answers.
The second question is “I wonder…?” followed by “if,” “why,” and “what” which expresses curiosity and an invitation to imagine. This type of “What could happen if…?” mindset can lead to a better understanding of what the other person is imagining in their own mind and encourages them to drill even deeper into the subject being addressed.
The third question is “Couldn’t we at least…?” This is a question that could be used when the conversation is stuck on some point, enabling us to get past the disputes or disagreements and instead find areas of common consensus from which to move forward. It is also a method to move forward when we are not sure of where we will finish. “If we could just begin…” or “How might that play out?” is a way to move forward around difficult barriers.
The fourth question is “How can I help?” This expresses a humility that we may not have all the answers and that there are others—other advisors, other experts—who can offer assistance. We are looking for specific ways that we individually can help. Yet this question also expresses a genuine desire to lend a hand where we have the expertise or insight to assist.
The fifth question is “What truly matters?” Dean Ryan even suggests that this question could be substituted for New Year’s resolutions. This moves to the heart of the issue at hand and truly allows the questioner to delve into the motivation behind the person answering.
If you get into the habit of asking these questions regularly, you have an excellent chance of being both successful and happy.
Bill Roberts, CLU, ChFC
AUCTORIS – Architects of Wealth Preservation Strategies