The power of ‘sonder’

stewart_bellUnderstanding the 16 motivators of human behaviour is key to client engagement

Some time ago, I decided I wanted to greatly enhance my sales ability. I have a strong belief that sales skills are an important life skill everyone needs, especially business owners and entrepreneurs.

Many of the best techniques I researched revolved around the art of questioning. So, after immersing myself in learning them, I set about using them in numerous “non-sales” situations. At the time I was travelling a great deal, so I found myself engaging taxi drivers.

I deliberately made the effort to simply inquire. I used open-ended questions, did not attempt to build rapport by talking about myself or finding common ground, and combined it with a genuine desire not to achieve any aim other than understanding.

The results were amazing. During that period, I went from having the kind of mundane, autopilot conversations we all drift through life having (“How are you today?” “Fine, and you?”), to finding out things about people’s lives I wouldn’t have otherwise discovered.

It reminds me of a word I was once introduced to: sonder. It’s a word of unclear origin, referring to “the realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own – populated with their own ambitions, friends, routines, worries and inherited craziness – an epic story in which you might appear only once, as an extra sipping coffee in the background, or as a blur of traffic passing on the highway”. It’s a magical concept, presenting a world made of millions of layers of stories, individually more complex than even the most detailed novel.

I found myself suddenly exposed to the tapestry of people’s lives underneath the façade of day-to-day life. For a natural introvert like myself, the realisation of how simple it was to connect on this level was a true light-bulb moment.

There are many theories of human motivation out there. I like Professor Steven Reiss’s Intrinsic motivation and the 16 basic desires theory best. First proposed in the mid-90s and taken from studies involving more than 6,000 people, Professor Reiss proposed 16 core motivators that he believes drive all human behaviour:

  • acceptance, the need for approval
  • curiosity, the need to learn
  • eating, the need for food
  • family, the need to raise children
  • honor, the need to be loyal to the traditional values of one's clan/ethnic group
  • idealism, the need for social justice
  • independence, the need for individuality
  • order, the need for organized, stable, predictable environments
  • physical activity, the need for exercise
  • power, the need for influence of will
  • romance, the need for sex and for beauty
  • saving, the need to collect
  • social contact, the need for friends (peer relationships)
  • social status, the need for social standing/importance
  • tranquility, the need to be safe
  • vengeance, the need to strike back and to compete.

If you subscribe to the theory that these are indeed the motivators of all human action, then they must also be the motivators of financial behavior. The question I’d like to ask you is: how many of these do you, as a financial adviser, assist with?

I believe the answer is all of them. The obvious ones are the need for security, saving, social status and even family. However, when you consider it further, you realise that even acceptance (providing a sounding board to validate decisions), romance (the ability to spend more quality time with loved ones) and revenge (some of the most success-motivated people I’ve met have been driven in at least some small way by the desire to prove themselves in the face of those who may have done them wrong), I can’t help reach the conclusion that financial advice is capable of adding value across all 16 desires.

The truth is that everyone is motivated by different things. Perhaps, whilst reading this, you’re already thinking about those clients you know best and what their motivators might be.

It is in understanding these that you, as a trusted adviser, can help clients better understand their own personal motivators, in turn helping them take action that is genuinely in their own best interests.

This is at the core of great client engagement. The kind that enables advice businesses to win the right clients, paying appropriate fees, who remain engaged with your firm for years to come.

It comes down to three things:

  1. focusing not on price, or what you’ll do, but instead the likely return on investment for the client, financial and otherwise
  2. placing your entire emphasis on understanding what would best serve the needs or wants of the client, ahead of what you have to offer
  3. building trust.

The interesting thing about the third one is, when you a) implicitly seek to understand what someone wants to achieve BEFORE trying to suggest a solution, and b) focus on understanding someone’s personal motivators, an interesting side effect occurs.

They find it easier to trust you.

In the storm of negative press that seems to have no end, it’s important that those who tend not to seek financial advice because they don’t really understand what advice is, are able to trust. Otherwise, how can you get them to a point where they are happy to take advice when they don’t possess the knowledge to fully evaluate your solutions?

I believe that when you focus foremost on understanding the person before you, resisting the temptation to dive into solution mode and ‘help’, you become better equipped to understand how their desired outcomes can be achieved (or not, if you choose to make the call that you can’t help). The client becomes more invested in taking that advice, meaning they are less likely to allow price to become an issue.

Because, as a very smart consultant once told me, it’s never about price. It’s always about value.

Simply, one of the most common bad habits I see when conducting sales training is that of switching into solution mode too easily. It ends the two-way conversation dead. It changes the dynamic from the client talking, to the adviser seeking to explain what he or she can do. It also robs you, as an adviser, of the opportunity to experience your 'sonder' moments.

The way to avoid that is simply to first seek to understand as much as possible BEFORE you get to a place where you suggest a solution.

With nothing more than the objective to understand, not only will you enjoy more 'sonder' moments, but also what I suggest is a genuinely more enjoyable way to engage clients.


Stewart Bell is founder and business coach at Audere Coaching & Consulting, specialising in innovation coaching for advice-based businesses. He was formerly a business coach at Elixir Consulting.

Stewart has over ten years’ business coaching and practice management experience, gained from a variety of business improvement roles working in MLC, ThreeSixty, NAB and AMP/ Hillross.

Stewart has also delivered presentations, workshops and training programs for a diverse range of institutions such as Count Financial, Zurich Investments, the AFA, the FPA and BT Financial Group. 

The power of ‘sonder’
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