If you haven’t had the opportunity to read the earlier posts in the series on story based planning written by my colleague and mentor, Scott Farnsworth, you can do so here, here and here (sounds funny to have all those here’s!).  They give an important backdrop to this post on “story-leading questions.”  I have found story leading questions to be one of the most transformative processes I’ve implemented when working with clients.  It “opens a door,” as Scott says, to really learning more about who each client is and what’s important to them – true Whole Family Wealth™ Planning.

In “The Power of Story-based Planning, Part 3” I wrote that “the best way to genuinely understand our clients and their values is to ask them thoughtful and insightful story-leading questions in an appropriate setting and then settle back and listen to their answers with all the love and attention and encouragement we can muster. I have learned that who they are and what they deeply value are woven into the stories they tell and can be discovered by a caring advisor.”

So what are story-leading questions?  Simply put, they are questions that invite the other person to answer with a narrative.   They open the door to a story.

I have found that good story-leading questions exhibit a warm and welcoming interest in the life of another.  Good story-leading questions are appropriate to the level of trust and intimacy between those conversing.  They don’t put the other person on the spot, nor feel judgmental.

Good story-leading questions also allow the person answering a number of ways to answer the question, rather than leaving them only one possible option.

Story-leading questions are like wizard’s matches:  they ignite a warm, crackling exchange of life-experiences and life-lessons.  Sometimes, they even kindle bonfires of story sharing.  A good story-leading question naturally and comfortably invites the other person to recall and share a little bit of their life with the person posing the question.

Most of us already have a wide array of story-leading questions that we use but most of us are not mindful of them or how powerful they can be, especially when we remember to ask them “in an appropriate setting and then settle back and listen to the answers with all the love and attention and encouragement we can muster,” to quote myself.

Here’s an experiment you can try.  When you go home this evening and when the time is right, try out this simple story-leading question with someone you love:  “So what was interesting or unusual about your day today?”

Or ask a young parent: “What has your child learned to do lately?”

Or ask a child: “What’s something you’ve discovered lately that makes you happy?”

Or ask an older person:  “What’s happening with your grandchildren?”

Or ask a friend: “What’ve you been up to since the last time we talked?”

Then listen, really listen.  Show with your countenance and your body language that you deeply want to hear the answer.  Don’t rush, don’t compete, don’t minimize or infantilize in any way what they say.  Just listen.

I promise if you do, you will discover — or rediscover — magic.

This same approach works in our professional lives.  Story-leading questions and attentive, caring listening can transform the planning process.

Our clients safeguard a treasure trove of information about themselves, their lives, their loved ones, and their visions for the future behind a heavy locked door.  Opening the door requires two sets of keys.  One set is the questions and the other is the listening.  Accessing this valuable cache of information can lead to the creation of elegant and appropriate planning for these clients.

Great story-leading questions and attentive, respectful listening are the keys.

Scott Farnsworth, J.D., CFP is an attorney and Certified Planner with more than 30 year in the estate, business, and financial planning fields. He is the CEO of SunBridge, Inc. and the founder of the SunBridge Legacy Network. He is a nationally recognized author and expert on practical, holistic, family-friendly planning. Scott was recently named one of Financial Advisor Magazine’s ‘Innovators of the Year.

Michael Lichterman is an attorney specializing in estate planning and helping families and business owners create a lasting legacy by planning for their Whole Family Wealth™.  He focuses on planning for  doctors/physicians, nurses, lawyers, dentists, professionals with minor children, family owned business succession, and the “sandwich generation” (caring for parents and children) – and does so from a Christian perspective.  He takes the “counselor” part of attorney and counselor at law very seriously, and enjoys creating life long relationships with his clients – many of which have become great friends.