Ideas. Lessons Learned, and Occasionally, Opinions
The president and CEO of a prominent asset management firm recently proposed that although sex was a taboo subject for a long time, the last remaining taboo in our society is money. I’d like to take issue with that assertion.
It does seem that sex is no longer taboo, at least in the public arena. Sex is used to sell everything from clothes to vacations, sex education is required in schools, and sex is the subject of more web sites than any other topic. There are a number of gurus dispensing advice on sexual matters, and in recent years companies selling remedies for sexual dysfunction have recruited prominent politicians and entertainers as spokespeople. Indeed, sex is no longer taboo.
Yet money seems to be in a similar category. It is the subject of endless conversations, speculation, and media coverage. Well-known pundits spout opinions and give advice on all things financial. Morning news shows regularly interview investment experts. Magazines, newspapers, and online columns wax eloquently about economics, savings rates, the best stock picks, and IRA’s. Political candidates consider money – who has it, who spends it, and where it is spent – to be a central issue. Money hardly seems a taboo subject.
What, then, IS the final taboo? What issue has no talk show pundits or advice columnists offering tips? What is generally pushed out of our collective consciousness, suppressed, denied, and avoided?
Check your own response when you read the word "death". If you are like most people, you recoil at the very thought of it. There are no key spokespersons giving information and advice about the process and how to deal with it. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross was long recognized as an expert, but her book On Death and Dying was published in 1969 and Elisabeth herself died several years ago. She temporarily opened the topic, but most of us simply avoid talking about death or facing its inevitability.
The interesting thing is that death used to be familiar. In generations past, grandparents lived with or near their kids and grandkids. When elders got sick, the family cared for them at home. When they died, family members lovingly washed and clothed the body, and the wake occurred in the living room. Children were exposed to death as a natural and normal part of life as the entire clan gathered to remember the one who died.
In recent generations, families began to scatter and both spouses started working. With no fulltime caregivers at home, sick and dying people were moved into hospitals and nursing homes. Medical technology prolonged life, often seemingly conquering death. Once death did occur, care of the body was shifted to funeral home personnel who quietly performed their duties out of sight.
As a result of these changes, public perception shifted. Death was no longer considered a normal, natural, and expected part of life. It became the unexpected and unnatural interruption to normal life. In modern society, we seem to believe that death is not inevitable, that it won’t happen to us or to anyone we love (at least not until we’re 99 years old and ready to die anyway). We actively avoid talking or even thinking about it. When death happens, we are shocked and look for someone to sue.
The last taboo, then, is not sex or money. It is death. This means most people you encounter, both professionals and clients alike, are unconsciously ignorant about what to say, what to do, and how to support someone who is facing death or grieving the death of a loved one. The flip side of the equation is that if you do know what to say, what to do, and how to support grieving people, you immediately distinguish yourself in the field. You serve your clients more compassionately, genuinely, and effectively, and build a reputation for understanding a client’s experience in a way that few other professionals do.
It is very good for your clients, and consequently it is very good indeed for your business.
Let me be clear at the outset: it was Terrance's prerogative to make his end-of-life decisions as he saw fit. It was his prerogative to include his wife Amanda in those decisions apparently as co-equal partner during the long final chapter of his life. With that firmly in mind, let's consider what she has to say about that journey.
In this Ted Talk film (“We need a heroic narrative of death”, October 15, 2013), Amanda Bennett is a fine story teller, occasionally poetic in her own voice and concluding with a quote from and for the ages. There are nuggets of utility in here and her final thesis -- there is a way to have a courageous and graceful goodbye -- is imperative to absorb. Her narrative has an almost connect-a-quote corniness about it despite its obviously heartfelt and sincerely sorrowful nature. However, because most of us know that a long and gradual decline is how we will die, Ms. Bennett's notion of "hope” is flawed, despite some utility.
She says "hope is part of our DNA as humans" but inaccurately and unhelpfully conflates acceptance of her husband’s approaching death with "you're prohibiting me from hoping." Her statement, "it's not a bug, it's a feature," is an intellectual sleight of hand that serves no one because she and her husband were, in fact, in profound denial that Terrance would soon die until the final six days of his life.
Again she says, "[I hoped], you might say irrationally, that I could keep him alive forever." I do say "irrationally" because hoping for what one can reasonably know is impossible is denial. That circle can't be squared. Although Bennett insists she was “redefining hope", in reality she kept extending a singular definition of hope (in this case a cure) until it was long-past possible. There is nothing in her narrative to suggest she was "redefining" hope.
She continues by asserting that "what the experts call denial I call hope." False. Once again intellectual and emotional sleight of hand. "Redefining hope" actually means that hope exists until we take our last breath or until our loved one takes her last breath. But, and this is the necessary and essential notion, hope changes. Initially we hope for a cure. Then, when we know that a cure is impossible, we hope to live until our daughter's wedding or our trip to Norway is complete or we finish painting the boat, or . Then, when that hope is fulfilled, or becomes impossible to realize, our hopes change again, until the final hope is to die in the presence of our most treasured loved ones in peace and in as little pain as possible.
That is what redefining hope looks like.
Here is one more example of the sleight of hand she practiced on herself: She claims "our system isn't built to accommodate it [hope and a graceful goodbye]." Actually, there were systemic accommodations available for Terrance and Amanda and they proactively chose to reject the most obvious one, the services of hospice. That's a textbook, Brittanica-grade example of denial.
Amanda and Terrance's correct response to his oncologist's assertion that "better days are ahead" was "I'll discuss that with my rabbi or priest or spiritual leader. As for you, medical profession, tell me the truth, please. Do so with warmth, compassion, humility, and sorrow for me and what you cannot achieve, but just do it."
Indicting an entire group of people is seldom efficacious and never fair but for expediency I do so here: The medical profession is flagrantly wrong to use phrases like "there's nothing more we can do for you” (the dying person) because there is always more we can do for a dying person. It may be true that there is nothing we can medically do but there is always something we can do to achieve Ms. Bennett's goal for each of us "… bid her farewell the Alexandria you are losing."
Our speaking engagements put us in contact with many of you smack dab in the mayhem of one of the stock market’s most volatile 60-day periods in memory and the worst December since 1929. Clients have a "relationship" with their money, and when that deeply personal relationship ends or takes a unilateral relational break, they grieve. So when this period happened, and when it inevitably happens again, what do you say to frightened, angry, grieving clients?
Many advisors told us they said (in language that was sometimes more colorful to emphasize the point): "I know how you feel. My portfolio is doing the same thing, and it hurts!" We saw similar words in various sources, but the gist of the message was the same: "I get it. I know exactly what you're going through because I have money in the market, too."
I understand the good intent. You want to reassure clients they are not alone in their sorrow over wild volatility and steep market declines, since your portfolio took the same proportional hit. Still, the basic grief support principle holds: each person’s grief is unique, even it’s a similar loss. Saying “I know how you feel” during market volatility is as unhelpful as saying it when your client’s parent dies.
Seek First to Understand
The old saw "seek first to understand" is precisely the correct tool to use here. It is fine to acknowledge that you have a similar experience, but don’t stop there. Allow for each client’s uniqueness by asking questions that allow them to tell their story and get you on the same team.
One option could be something like this: “I’m a financial professional, but when things like this happens in the market, everyone gets twitchy. I know it's not rational when I feel that knot in my stomach. I know it’s not going to last because I always allocate every client’s portfolio just like my own, in ways designed to withstand these market swings. But logic doesn't dictate emotions, and so I still feel it. Do you feel it that way when you hear the market news, or how is your reaction different?” This helps allay the fear and blame, because you are treating the client’s portfolio as if it were your own. It also creates a sense of teamwork and problem-solving.
If you rode out the 2008/2009 mayhem with clients, you can include: "In your mind, how is this one similar or different from 2008? Are there things we did or discussed then that might be helpful for us this time?"
Then you can follow up with: “So tell me, what is the worst that you could imagine happening to you financially right now?” Keep asking “What else?” and saying “Tell me more” until you have all the major fears on the table. Then ask, “Since these are your worst fears, what can we do together to keep you safe? I think we’ve done good work together to set you up to weather the storm, but we can always tweak things if you want. Perhaps we should stay in closer touch during this time, too. What seems right to you?”
When you ask open-ended questions like these, you find out what's going on in their heads. Knowing those things doesn't make money come back. It doesn't mean you haven't got work to do to help them sort out their choices and stay the course. But it might make the difference between clients switching away from you vs. ensuring that you are moving in lock-step together through frightening times.
The holidays are over and now you face winter with its longer, darker days. If you have recently lost a loved one, here are some ideas to help you get through and come out on the other side with greater hope and peace.
Mid-winter can be a difficult time no matter your life circumstances. The weather is colder, days are darker, and it can seem like life retreats for a while. This is especially true when you enter a new year without a beloved person who died. How do you cope? Here are ten tips for finding comfort in 2019.
Too much wisdom is lost every day in this country because we devalue our elders. When we highly value them, and take the time to listen and learn from the wealth of their life experience, it can be eye-opening, informative, and quite a delight for the storyteller and listener alike.
My sister and I recently embarked on a project to capture more of my Mom’s life story before it was lost to us. Over a period of several visits we asked her many things - what it was like growing up in a household with six brothers, what stood out about her Mom’s death from cancer at the too-young age of 52, her happiest and most troublesome memories, how people who knew her as a young woman would describe her, and what she hopes people will remember about her after she dies. Together we laughed, cried, and grew closer. We also learned many things we had never known. For example, we were surprised to find out that she’d had two dogs as a teenager, and she was not very fond of Frank Sinatra, even though all of her friends and classmates swooned over him!
In addition to passing on wisdom and life lessons, these stories are important for another reason. As we age, we are increasingly susceptible to the diseases that cause dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease. When people have Alzheimer’s, they lose their short-term memory first. Family members who gather long-term memories build a way to maintain their relationships, because even if their beloved elder can’t remember what she had for lunch, she may well remember that dog or the kind of music she loved in high school.
So, as you meet with clients to close out the year, encourage them to take time over the holiday season with the older generation, asking for their wisdom and life lessons, and gathering their stories and memories. Your clients will often learn things they never knew before, and may deepen their relationship with parents or grandparents. In the process, they may find themselves wiser, more tolerant, and with greater appreciation for those who comprise their heritage.
Of course, if your clients ARE the older generation, encourage the same thing in reverse. Recommend that they write or record their own memories and stories, along with the wisdom, hard-won lessons, and messages they wish to pass on to their families. The compilation could be a welcome gift of lasting value. Regardless of which direction the information flows, it is an exercise your clients will likely never regret. While you’re at it, perhaps you can do it in your family as well. Give the gift of time, curiosity, memory, and wisdom this holiday season. It costs so little, yet it is priceless.
New FINRA regulations that passed in 2017 will take effect on February 5. One major provision requires every broker-dealer to make a good-faith attempt to keep on file an alternate contact form for every client. This will function somewhat like the medical HIPAA forms, giving permission for a specific person who can be called if the client can’t be reached or there is an emergency. I’m delighted to see this development, as I’ve been calling for this protocol for many years as a way to protect both your clients and your firm.
I believe, however, that the FINRA rule is only a start. As you may recall, I developed a Corgenius Diminishing Capacity LetterTM. It goes beyond the minimum required for compliance with the FINRA rule, since it allows clients to name more than one person plus the powers of attorney and it gives broader permissions for contacting those in the client’s trusted circle when there is a potential problem.
My simple template is as follows:
“I, [client name], give [advisor names] of [company name and location] permission to call my Durable Powers of Attorney and the following people if they suspect any diminishment in my physical, cognitive, mental, or psychological capacity.”
The form then has space to list at least three people, with their names, addresses, relationship to the client, and contact information. Your clients sign and date it, and you keep it in their files. Every year, you revisit the form to see whether names or items of contact information need updating.
With this form, you have greater leeway, as an emergency or inability to reach the client is not the triggering factor. If you have noticed worrisome signs and suspect a problem in any of these areas, you have explicit permission to call others, including those the client designated as having decision-making power over financial and healthcare matters.
In that call, of course, remember not to make a diagnosis, i.e. “I think your mom might have dementia” or “Your dad appears to be in a serious depression.” Instead, list what you see. “I’m calling to let you know I observed some disturbing signs in my appointments with your mom. She asked the same question three times in 25 minutes, even though I’d answered it each time. She has been unable to follow multi-step directions and forgets decisions we made at the last appointment. There may be an underlying medical cause, and I want you to be aware of it so you or other family members can watch for similar things and take appropriate steps. In the meantime, I am contacting my compliance department to make sure we are protecting your mom’s financial well-being in case there is an issue with her capacity.”
Be sure to document your observations and the phone call itself as evidence that you are doing everything you can to protect your client. This may also help you connect to other family members, who see you as a comprehensive advisor who cares about more than just your clients’ money. Be a wise guide for your clients, even in cases of diminished capacity.
Perhaps you have noticed that those who most effectively teach skills and protocols to others are sometimes the most remiss in their own recommendations. For example, I know a doctor who ignored her own early warning signs of cancer, and an insurance agent who left his wife with nothing because he let his life insurance policies lapse. While it’s easy to roll your eyes, consider yourself as a financial professional and whether you have your own house in order.