The Intensity of Wealth: Advisor Perspective - Part One

How savvy advisors use listening and empathy to guide clients through difficult chapters in their lives

By Gary Shunk and Megan Wells

Key Takeaways:

  • Wealth does not necessarily bring the freedom that the American dream implies.
  • Complaints are actually invitations, nuggets of opportunity for the advisor to penetrate client needs more deeply.
  • When you adjust your internal reaction to a challenging client, you correct the underlying conflicts that have been sabotaging your effectiveness.

Getting rich is the American dream. Living rich has become a reality for a rising percentage of Americans. But for those who have achieved this dream, there are unanticipated consequences. And for those who inherit wealth, these consequences increase in complexity as they are passed forward through the generations.

These consequences can lead to conflicts that undermine the advisor/client relationship. So how can an advisor enhance their insight to transform conflict into success?

Let’s play a mental game for a moment and ask why getting rich is the American dream. What exactly do we dream?

Analyzing the American dream

Wealth is imagined as something that affords us freedom. Wealthy people are perceived to be free from the financial struggles that most others have to deal with in the form of mortgages, education, health care and retirement expenses. Americans also dream that getting rich will bring personal as well as public power. If we really think about this mental game, we’ll notice that the fantasy of wealth has an irrational halo. It’s as if wealth will free us from the curses of being human and grant health, beauty, wisdom and love.

The fact is, wealth does not bring freedom. Wealth brings intensity.

Intensity is an increase in degree, strength or concentration. The word comes from the Latin intensus, which means stretched tightly or strained. In order to illuminate the difference between freedom and intensity, let’s use our imaginations.

Picture a human being as a balloon. Our dream of wealth as freedom lifts our balloon high above the field of human suffering. The breeze is gentle; the balloon sails gracefully, undisturbed among the birds and over the beautiful trees.

If we imagine wealth as intensity, we see the balloon differently. The helium-filled interior is stretched to capacity, making the skin vulnerable to explosion. The breeze may be gentle, the trees and birds beautiful, but because of the stress within the balloon, these external events are now potential threats.

The balloon may be free, but the intense pressure profoundly alters the situation. This shift in imagination changes how an advisor works with a client in two important ways: The advisor gains insight into their own expectations toward the wealthy client and listens with deeper, more patient empathy.

Real-world example

Let’s examine this shift in perception through a case scenario.

An advisor came to me because he had noticed a pattern of lost clients. As the advisor explained how he lost four different clients and we examined each scenario, we discovered a similarity in the clients’ behavior. “Complainers,” the advisor said. “To tell you the truth, they were difficult to work with. Their attitudes were negative. I attempted various positive psychology techniques with each, but to no effect. I just may not be able to work with a certain kind of wealthy personality.”

I encouraged the advisor to detail the types of “complaints” the “difficult” clients lodged. But what became clear was the underlying discomfort the advisor felt—he was thinking about difficult clients in terms of the “freedom balloon.” The advisor unconsciously expected those clients to be grateful about their wealth and therefore felt irritated when they expressed frustration about their rich lifestyles.

“I know what happened,” the advisor said. “I stopped listening. In each case, with all four of these clients, I started trying to fix their attitudes and tell them what to do.” However, with a shift in perspective to the “intensity” of wealth, his interpretation of these clients changed dramatically—their complaints became clues to the areas in which the clients felt stretched and strained.

Complaints are actually invitations, nuggets of opportunity for the advisor to penetrate client needs more deeply.

There are many conversational arenas in which the wealthy client can show symptoms of wealth intensity. The vigilant advisor, when listening for “stretch and strain,” shifts the internal judgments that create a barrier to effective service.

Symptoms of wealth intensity

Do your clients make comments about themselves that convey a superior or inferior attitude toward others? When they talk, do you notice they put others down or do they convey a need to be rescued? Do you feel guarded or patronized? Or do you feel the opposite and perhaps notice a pull to teach or help them? These types of reactions may signal that your client is feeling the symptoms of wealth intensity in the arena of identity.

Take careful notice of the thoughts and interpretations happening during your interactions with clients. It is useful to jot notes down immediately following a client conversation. Look for patterns in your own reactions to the client. Your inner monologue will give you vital information and guide you to make successful adjustments.


When you adjust your internal reaction to a challenging client, you take control of the underlying conflicts that sabotage your effectiveness. Gaining insight into your expectations of the client is the first step. The second step is to further refine your listening skills. Look for more on that in Part 2 of this series.

About the Author

Gary Shunk, Principle of Family Wealth Dynamics, consults with families in business, families of wealth and the advisors who serve them on the nonfinancial issues of intergenerational relationship dynamics, communication and trust building. He can be reached at www.familywealthdynamics.com or by emailing gary@familywealthdynamics.com.

Megan Wells tours nationally as a story artist and consultant. As a Facilitator with Witmer and Associates’ Unleashing the Leader program, Megan coaches top level executives to flip their storytelling upside down for eyebrow raising results.