Big Questions versus Little Questions

Neil Parker, CEO of Joslin Rhodes & Founder of the Plan Happy Lifestyle Financial Planning Academy suggests that little questions are just as important as big questions. Little questions can often lead to a binary answer. If drill down far enough by answering them with another little question, you will eventually reach the big question. That great Human Question that is so much more fun to answer.

Here is how it works, says Neil Parker

Big questions and little questions and what’s the difference between the two

Let’s start with little questions, because these are the ones that you will come across most frequently in your role as a Financial Planner, these are the ones your client asks you about technical and transactional things. And that’s how you recognize them. They’re largely lend themselves to a binary answer:

  • Is this a good investment on a button investment?
  • Should I do draw down on an annuity?
  • Can I get a 5% return from this foot?

Because we’re trained answer questions as Financial Advisers and Financial Planners, every inch of our being wants to give them the answer. Sometimes it’s just to prove that we know what we’re doing. Sometimes it’s just a built in response because that’s what we’ve been trained to do all these years. So we’d give them an answer to the little question, but then what happens is the client says, thanks for that. And then they ask you another little question. And we answer that because that’s what we’ve been trained to do. And then guess what they ask you?

Another little question comes up because we’re training our clients to ask little questions because we keep answering the little questions, but we’re not getting anywhere. That’s why the little questions keep coming because they’re not actually answering the big question that the client needs. I’m straight. We’re just stuck in an orbit round and round answering little questions. The nub of the issue is here, but how do we get that?

We’ve got to dig. We’ve got to dig down and get to the big question. And you can recognize the big question because it’s always human.

It’s always about how we feel.

So when you’re asked a little question, instead of answering the question, ask, why did they ask it? Why did they ask it in that way? Why is it important to know the answer? If I give you the answer, what would you do with it?

This helps you drill down to the next layer. But be aware. The next layer is also little questions, but we’re drilling down. You’re getting a little bit more information and you’ve got to ask why they’re asking that question. What would they do with your answer? Why does it matter? And you’ll get down to the next layer and the next layer.

And eventually you will get to a response from a client that is about how they feel. They might start off here about can I get a 5% investment return from this investment fund? And by asking them great questions about why do they need to know:

  • Why not 4% or 6%?
  • Why have you chosen five?
  • Why do you need this?
  • What are you going to do with it?

And it turns out that if you drill down far enough, the client finally gets to the point where they explain that they’re trying to get enough income from their investments so that they can pack in their job as an accountant, because they’re stressed to death, it’s harming their health and they want to feel more a piece of themselves.

They want to go and be a photographer. And they’re at peace when they’re doing photography and this will help them subsidize it.

Now that is a human question.

If we’d asked in the first place, “How can I feel at peace with myself and get away from this career that’s causing me harm and towards one, that brings me peace.” That’s a great human question.

And how much fun is it to answer that? Much more but we have to do it until we get to that bit where from experience, it’s normally, on average, about five layers down. I’ve seen it where it’s 20, 30 layers down, but on average, it’s about five. And you know what, when you get to the big question, you realize that there’s probably a thousand ways to answer it.

A thousand technical ways to achieve that answer. And most of them, if not, all of them will be way more efficient than the initial middle question that they asked that they thought was going to solve, whatever problem they thought they had, even though they hadn’t identified it, articulated it.

So it’s our job to not give answers. It’s our job to ask questions and help them understand what the big question is that they’re really asking, because look, at the end of the day, the right answers to the wrong questions, aren’t going to help anybody.


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