Ideas. Lessons Learned, and Occasionally, Opinions
National Healthcare Decisions Day kicks off on April 16th with a week of planned events to “inspire, educate and empower the public and providers about the importance of advance care planning.”
As a financial professional, you may find clients turning to you for information, especially as they approach retirement or, more likely, when they face issues with aging parents. In order to guide them wisely, it is essential that you are educated on advance directive documents.
In broad terms, an advance directive is any document that allows a person to state “in advance” how they wish to be treated if they are unable to make those choices themselves. The most common advance directive is a living will. Contrary to what many people think, living wills do not always limit treatment or “pull the plug”; they can also be used to request every medical intervention available.
Also, if someone is conscious, capable of making decisions, and able to sign permission forms, there is no need to consult the living will. Living wills only take effect when a patient is unconscious, demented, or otherwise incapable of making their own decisions.
The living will should be the clearest description possible of the person’s desires. Clients often list their wishes based on various situations, as they may want different treatments when imminently dying of cancer than when in a coma from which recovery is likely.
The advantages of living wills:
Common problems of living wills:
But just because there are a number of valid concerns about living wills doesn't mean that financial advisers should discourage their clients from creating the documents. Instead:
When you educate your clients and prompt them to complete a living will, you ease their fears that someone else will dictate their medical decisions. You keep them in greater control and take a burden off their family members. You help them have valuable discussions with those they love. The resulting peace of mind is invaluable to your clients and consequently good for your business.
It’s almost time to send out holiday greetings to your clients. Yet what if your client’s family member died this year? If you send them a card wishing “Happy Holidays”, then at best you tell them you treat your clients generically, sending the same card regardless. At worst, it lets them know you don’t understand at all and, like the rest of society, expect them to paste on a smiley-face and “be happy for the sake of the season”.
In either case, the card heads straight to the trash, never to be remembered.
Instead, here are other possibilities.
Consider text like the following along with a gift card for a cup of coffee, a movie, a massage, or something else comforting:
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."
Advisors are increasingly faced with deaths among their clients and the clients’ families. In large firms, there may be more than one a month. If you can serve clients really well in those most difficult times, you create a bond of loyalty with the client and with the family members. Those who don’t know how to talk with grieving people are going to lose clients to those who do. Here are a few ideas to consider when communicating with a client after the death of a loved one:
Welcome the client
When a client comes into the office for that first appointment after the funeral, you can recognize the reality that is right in front of you and yet genuinely make them feel welcome with something like this: “I’m so glad you were able to make it in today. I only wish it were under better circumstances. Still, there is so much we can do together and I’ll do everything I can to make this very difficult process just a little easier for you and your family.”
Then, before you get to business, remember that grieving people hunger to talk to anyone who is willing to listen. So invite clients to tell you about their experience. They will let you know if they don’t want to talk and you always follow a client’s lead, but most of the time telling the story is the most healing and cathartic thing they can do.
So ask an open-ended question such as:
Even if you had a similar grief experience, do not say “I know how you feel” or “I understand just what you’re going through.” Doing so is a sure way to alienate grieving clients because you are always wrong.
Instead, let them know you’ve had a similar experience or have some knowledge of the grief process, but then allow for their unique situation by asking a question such as “How is it different?” or “But what is it like for you?”
For instance: “When my mom died, I kept picking up the phone to call her before I remembered there wouldn’t be an answer on the other side, and that was one of the hardest things for me to accept. Is it like that for you? What do you struggle to accept?” This so much better than “I know how you feel” because you don’t.
Tell your clients that some things have to happen on a timeline, such as estate tax filings and trust funding deadlines. Show the list of those things and reassure them that you will make sure they get done without letting anything fall through the cracks.
Other than that, most financial professionals understand that it’s not a good idea to make major decisions too soon, especially if they are irrevocable. In practice, though, this too often means advisors leave clients alone until they call to say they’re ready to talk. That is a mistake, because surely clients will be inundated with ideas from others about what they should do with their money, who they should talk to, or how they should handle things.
Instead, after reassuring about the timeline, say something like: “Did you know that both science and financial regulations say that it’s better not to make major decisions right now? Physiologically, your brain just isn’t ready yet. So this is my recommendation. Take some time to breathe, take care of yourself and your family, get the estate settled, and just put one foot in front of the other. I will be calling you every week or two just to check in and see whether you have any questions or ideas you’d like to talk about. In fact, if someone offers you an idea that sounds good, bring them in. I’ll help you objectively look at whether that’s the best thing to do, and whether it’s best to do it right now. We’ll work together to make sure we’re protecting your loved one’s legacy and your financial future.”
These are just three examples of skills that distinguish you in the field and build lifetime loyalty. Remember, when deaths occur, as they inevitably will, survivors have their choice of hundreds of thousands of financial professionals who do a really good job investing money, insuring people, advising on retirement plans, and more. What is the differentiator clients want? They look for relationship and a financial advisor who understands their lives and knows how to support them in their grief. That is who will get their business.
Have you ever seriously worried about having to live on the streets? Interestingly, that is one of the most common fears of a widow, even if she has more money than she’s ever had due to insurance proceeds. She is afraid it will somehow disappear and she will become a bag lady. In some cases, her situation is precarious enough that the fear is justified and you have to work carefully to preserve whatever funds she has. In many cases, though, the fear is irrational
Allow me a parallel example. My son Steven threw fits at bedtime, because he was convinced the ghosts in the closet would come out at night and “get” him. I used all the logic at my disposal. We turned on the lights and examined every square inch of the closet without finding any ghosts. I sat with him for hours in the dark waiting in vain for ghosts to appear. I garnered the testimony of his older brothers. Nothing worked.
Finally, instead of trying to talk him out of his belief, I acknowledged it as if it were true. “OK, Steven, since there are ghosts in the closet who could come out at night and get you, what would help you feel safe?” We brainstormed ideas until he decided he needed two things: a night light by his bed, and an adult to firmly close the closet door and tell the ghosts they had to stay put until morning. When I implemented his simple solutions he peacefully drifted off to sleep.
With a widow or with any other client with irrational fears, then, do not try to talk her out of being afraid, no matter how compelling the evidence of her safety. She will not feel heard or understood by you unless you acknowledge her fears and find ways to help her feel safe.
This strategy may help:
When you follow this simple procedure, you provide something for a fearful client that few others ever do. You hear her, take her fears seriously, and develop effective strategies for coping with them. That is a sure way to build long-term trust and lifetime loyalty.
Continue this pattern, always asking questions based on what the client is saying. You will notice the pitch of the voice lowering, longer pauses and slowed breathing as the anger gets spent and the client calms. Only then can you begin talking about what you can do together as you go forward. Ask what steps the client would like to take. Make appropriate suggestions for portfolio review, redistribution of assets, or simply keeping in contact every week or two.
At the end of the conversation, make sure you thank clients for being honest with you. Tell them your door is always open, and you will listen even when it is hard. Reassure them that although times are really tough right now, you can weather the storm together and come out on the other side.
If you can master these skills, your clients will come out of even angry conversations feeling heard, supported, and most of all, loyal to you.
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.