Americans are sometimes accused by other people of being self-indulgent, egocentric, and certain that whatever they do is right.
This portrait of national egotism isn't borne out by the millions of dollars and thousands of hours that average citizens contributed to helping Southeast Asian tsunami victims, not to mention Hurricane Katrina refugees. On an individual level, though, we all know people who seem totally focused on themselves and are disconnected from the needs of others around them and society as a whole.
When you come across this "me" mentality in clients or their families, there may be ways to help these people broaden their perspective. Here are some ideas.
A workhorse who puts in 70- to 80-hour weeks, my longtime client has also been having an affair with his secretary. His fed-up wife has decided to divorce him and take the kids. My client is furious, and wants me to juggle his financial accounts to reduce the amount of alimony and child support she can receive. How can I help him reconsider this? Although you're not a therapist, you may be able to help this self-centered client reflect on the situation he's created for himself.
I would begin by letting him air his grievances about his wife and her decision. Once he's calmed down, ask him some thought-provoking questions about the person he'd wish to be and the relationships he'd like to cultivate. For example, what kind of husband does he think he has been? What kind of father? How good a relationship does he have with his kids? How does this compare with the relationship he would like to have with them?
I would also ask if he is prepared to make a commitment to the other woman he is seeing. If so, does he intend to walk away from his children and their mother?
Once you know more about what he's thinking and feeling, you may be able to advise him to do the right thing by those he once loved (and perhaps still loves), instead of reacting with fury and vindictiveness. Remind him that decisions prompted by hurt, anger, spite, fear, or any other intense emotion may feel satisfying in the moment, but are likely to create more problems in the longer term. If he behaves honorably toward his wife and children, he will build bridges that can serve him well later on.
Getting him to see this may take time and patience. If he prefers licking his "narcissistic wound" to listening to your advice, you may need to tell him outright that you are not comfortable helping him withhold support from his family. Learning that you do not condone his behavior could shock him into rethinking his attitude.
With more than enough money to support her luxurious lifestyle, my client spends lavishly on her own pleasures. Her divorced sister, who has health problems, has asked her for money to help raise her children. My client thinks it's a bad idea to let her sister become dependent on her, but she wants my advice. How can I disagree with her without alienating her? I'd try to learn more about what's behind your client's thinking. Did she create her own wealth through hard work, or is it family money? What kind of relationship does she have with the sister and her children? Why is she worried about her sister depending on her? Is she concerned about having to deprive herself if she gives her sister money?
I would speculate that if your client has been living so much better than her sibling, she may fear opening up an awkward dialogue about her own lavish lifestyle. Perhaps she hopes that by refusing to give her any money, she will be able to stay walled off from her sister's potential rebukes. You might suggest that acting more generously could defuse criticism, at least in part. See if you can steer the conversation to aspirations she may have to make a difference with her money--either in the wider world or, more narrowly, for her family.
If you listen non-judgmentally to her story and her needs, desires, and fears, she may feel comfortable enough to ask what you would do in her situation. Though giving or lending to family members is always rather risky, in some situations it's a risk worth taking. If you truly feel that helping her sister is the right thing to do, I'd tell her so. Then suggest ways to set limits around her giving, so she can help her family without fearing that their expectations will turn into a bottomless pit.
My widowed client's daughter has moved in with her after a futile job search. To pay this extra expense, my client has been spending more than her budget allows. Now her son, whom she has just put through college, has asked if he can move back too. She wants to build on another bathroom for him and pay for it out of her life insurance settlement, which is currently invested for her retirement. I'm not in favor of this, but she says she doesn't want to be "selfish" with her money. How can I help her be more objective? It will be easier to avoid sounding like a heartless ogre if you have children of your own. Let your client know that you understand a parent's instinctive desire to spare his or her children any pain, struggle, or deprivation.
Once you've empathized fully with her feelings, discuss how hard it can be for parents to turn from taking care of their children to taking care of themselves, once the kids begin to live their own lives. It's often difficult to set limits. No matter how old the children are, it can be excruciatingly hard to refuse when they ask for help. If you have a personal story about this dilemma, you might share it with her.
You may then be able to help your client see that she will not really be helping her children if she compromises her own future. She would almost certainly prefer to stay independent than to become a financial burden on them later in life. If she agrees--even reluctantly--with this analysis, encourage her to set limits with her children by charging them a fair rent, putting a time limit on their home stay, or both. The more honest she can be about her own needs and difficulties, the better she will help her daughter and son learn to spread their own wings.
My client's mother left her lakefront home to him and his sister. Both of them initially agreed that they would maintain it and would eventually leave it to the next generation. Now my client's sister tells him that she needs money badly and wants to sell it. He has offered to buy her out, but isn't willing to pay a market price since she and her children would still be able to use the house. They're both calling each other selfish. Is there any way to help them see eye to eye? In any blame game, one or both parties often end up feeling bad and getting super-defensive. If it's allowed to escalate, rifts can open up that divide families for years.
My reading of this situation is that the sister's neediness has put her into a primitive survival mode, forcing out of her mind any thought of future benefits to her children and the rest of the family from keeping the property. She's in the midst of a stressful crisis, while her brother can take a longer view because he isn't having a financial meltdown.
Unless there is some immovable deadline, I would try to help both of them slow down the decision-making process. Make sure all the players' needs are aired, including the sister's children if they are old and mature enough. Make it clear that no one is "good" or "bad." Everyone has a selfish part and a giving part, and it's much easier to be unselfish and generous when one is not in the midst of intense personal need.
Perhaps your client can help his sister brainstorm ways to relieve her financial burdens without having to sell the property. I'm not suggesting that he rescue her, but that he try compassionately to help her sort this out in a way that takes both of them out of their high-stress modes.
My client's business has 12 longtime employees who are all covered by a SEP retirement plan. This year, he is thinking of setting up a pension plan solely for himself and funneling into it what would have been the SEP contributions for the entire firm. He's already well-off, so I asked if he was comfortable with the fairness of this. He snapped, "Why not? It's my company." He's a good client, and I'm afraid his business will suffer because of this decision. Can you suggest how to change his thinking? I'd begin by validating his position that as the business's owner, he can do as he chooses. Ask how he feels about his company, his workers, and his business legacy.
If he is willing to open up to you, you may find he's harboring negative feelings towards some or all of his employees that make him want to punish them in some way. Or perhaps his wife is pressuring him to accumulate more money for retirement or their children's inheritance.
Once you identify his motivation, you'll have more leverage to suggest options that could have a more positive outcome for him. For instance, if it appears that the principal reason for this course of action is to increase his own wealth, you might appeal to his desire to strengthen his company. Chances are he would prefer to nurture a productive work environment where his employees respect him and want to perform well for more reasons than their paychecks. Higher productivity will also increase the company's value if and when he decides to sell.
As this situation shows, it's important to identify why clients may be acting in ways that seem selfish. Is it a reaction to disappointment, hurt, or anger? A matter of pure self-interest? A short-term life crisis? Or is it simply the way they view the world and their place in it?
Once you know more about their motivations, you may be able to help them connect to deeper longings to leave a legacy. Scare tactics should be used only when positive inspiration has failed. Encouraging clients to align with their "higher selves" is always more effective and lasting than guilt-tripping them. Remember, too, that most people genuinely want to make a difference, to sow harmony rather than conflict in their relationships and their world.
Olivia Mellan, a speaker, coach, and business consultant, is the author with Sherry Christie of The Advisor's Guide to Money Psychology, available through www.investmentadvisor.com. You can e-mail Olivia at firstname.lastname@example.org.