Column: Make deeper connections by learning family stories

An often-overlooked but vital part of connecting with clients is asking about their family’s history.


“Tell me about the home where you grew up, your parents, and a couple of warm memories from your family of origin.”

When you ask that question, notice the facial response, the eyes, the posture packaged into the words that follow. Those nonverbal messages create the color and texture from which all answers come. Do you see a smile? Is there a long silence or a looking off to a place years in the past? Might you experience a chuckle followed by brief laughter? Does the head drop a bit or the mouth twist into a grimace?

All of us live out of a narrative crafted across decades of living. Family stories, far more than an interest in sports, a career or a hobby, are life’s largest and most complex chapters.

They unconsciously control more of who we are than any of us imagine. Family stories matter to those whom we serve. We will do far better work when they matter to us.

For example, you might learn that your client came from very humble beginnings where both mother and father worked two or three jobs, and hand-me-down clothes were expected.

You might discover that, like you, his or her first job was throwing papers or flipping hamburgers or pumping gas to help the family make ends meet – as with my family of origin. When my older brother and sister went to college, Mom re-entered the work force and soon after, my dad lost his job and had to reinvent his work focus.

Good, bad or indifferent, these stories shape who we are; they have significant influence on most of the decisions we make.

As another talks and you listen, pay close attention to that first story. What comes immediately to mind is, more times than not, the big memory that shapes so many others. You may learn that your client’s parents divorced or there was the untimely death of a sibling or the childhood home caught fire or a grandparent died in an accident.

Scribble these notes on the creases of your mind and, after your client leaves, jot them down. Reflect on what you heard, saw and felt – asking yourself, “How might I better advise my client, having heard their family stories?”

One of my senior clients is a man who has taught me so much about sales, personal relationships, the value of humor and the importance of presence. Before we began to work together, I listened first for an hour and a half and, at another meeting, another hour to stories about his childhood, his beloved father, his military service, how he met his wife, and why they moved to our city.

An only child, this man grew up the son of a physician who was the company doctor. I learned that father and son had a bond that was the formative influence in his life then and now.

Hearing his stories from childhood and how he achieved incredible success in business still helps me to serve him today. Hearing and learning about his life and family bonded us to each other, and all because I asked him to tell me his story.

Absorbing a client’s past will help you understand that person’s attitude toward things like risk, security, meaning, faith, politics, values and morality. Leaning in to what are always fascinating narratives will cast light on those emotional intangibles like joy, happiness, loss, disappointment and anger.

You will discover that, as in your own life, loss and grief have left them feeling alone, afraid and even helpless. On the other hand, don’t miss those moments when you capture laughter, a smile, or the shoulders’ lift as they remember some personal success or a child’s accomplishments.

If your client is married, pay attention to the words and voice inflection used when speaking of his or her spouse. You will learn so much when you ask, listen, observe and create safe spaces for conversation, understanding and good memory.

Knowing a client’s family stories will change your practice. Tuck all those notes in your memory and review them before you pick up the phone, have that next conversation, or offer your counsel. In doing so, you will deepen your relationships with your clients and find yourself experiencing a level of joy in doing business others may miss.

The writer, who lives in Augusta, is the author of Cadence of Care: Imagining a Transformed Advisor-Client Experience and can be followed on his blog at