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Once Burned, Twice Shy

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Will the economy keep getting stronger, or are we in for a double-dip recession as in 1981-82? Will the market keep moving up, or will it deceive us as it did in the spring of 2000? Will a worrisome relationship with a loved one or business colleague improve, or will we get hurt as we did before?

Though spring is just around the corner, many people are still buttoned up to the chin in protective memories of past losses, betrayals, and disappointments. With care and patience, you may be able to help them shed these stifling burdens to regain confidence in themselves and in the future. Consider these examples of clients and colleagues who were once burned, twice shy.

A professional in his 30s started investing with me in the boom years when everyone was making money. Now, after big tech stock losses, he resists my advice to continue putting new money into the market. I’ve tried to explain the lower risk of the investments I’m proposing, but it doesn’t seem to make a difference. Is there anything else I can do? Before your client will be ready to listen to your rational explanations about risk, you need to find out what’s going on in his head. Ask him to tell you the way he feels about his past financial losses. How did they affect his quality of life and his choices for the future? What fears about investing have they instilled in him? Commiserate with him, and let him know he’s not alone. Many other investors who went through the same financial earthquake had to struggle to put it behind them, but now have begun to reap the rewards of persistence and calm.

After your client feels you have heard him fully, invite him to discuss his goals, hopes, and dreams with you and strategize ways to realize these desires. If he still seems paralyzed and resists developing an investment action plan, it is probably a sign that you need to continue exploring the distress and fears resulting from his portfolio losses. This may take several meetings, but if you are patient, I believe you can eventually coax him to at least dip his toe in the water again.

After an acrimonious marriage and ugly divorce, a partner in my firm is about to remarry. When she talks about her fianc? (who appears to be a pretty decent guy), she makes caustic remarks like “I’ve told him he’ll never get his hands on my money” and “My friends are taking bets on whether he’ll last as long as number one.” Her attitude strikes a sour note with colleagues and clients. How can I talk to her about this touchy subject? Undoubtedly, your partner is trying to shield herself in advance from wounds like the ones she suffered in her last relationship.

I would suggest taking her out to lunch or dinner (sans fianc?) some day when neither of you is rushed for time. You might begin by telling her how glad you are that she has found such a good guy to marry and trust. If she responds in a way that betrays her past hurt and present fears, you can compassionately say something like “It sounds as though you want to be sure of protecting yourself against the kind of difficulties that surfaced in your past relationship. I’d like to know more about that.” Listen carefully to what she tells you.

It’s important to sympathize about her past experiences. If you truly listen to her story, with all its large and small wounds and betrayals, she may then feel safe enough to hear you about the fallacy (and danger) of projecting this past trauma onto her new marriage.

When you judge it’s time to move to this tricky topic, ask if you can speak to her as a friend, not as a business colleague. If she agrees, start by noting that you want her to be happy, both at home and at work. Advise her that bringing this old baggage to her new relationship may burden it in a way that compromises the potential for harmony and happiness. If you have ever sought counseling yourself after a breakup, mention it as one way to help avoid polluting new relationships with old feelings.

Be sure to ask how she feels about what you’re saying, and whether she understands that you are motivated by concern for her welfare. If she seems open to you, gently point out that some of the comments she has made to co-workers and clients about her forthcoming marriage may be perceived as bitter or cynical. You might add that while you are concerned about these remarks reflecting on her professionalism, her personal well-being is equally important to you.

I hope you succeed in helping her. Even if she prickles at your advice now, she may thank you later, if it keeps her remarriage from becoming one of the many that fail.

A new client told me her previous advisor got her into unsuitable investments that paid him large commissions. She seemed delighted with us, but her goals for portfolio performance were flat-out unrealistic. When I tried to bring her expectations down to earth, she first seemed deflated, then became defensive and left without making a decision. What gives? While some people react to trauma by becoming pessimistic about the chances of a better future, others react by turning into super-optimists, pumping themselves up with confidence that the past is past and tomorrow will be all sunbeams and rainbows.

In both cases, your approach should be the same: try and understand what went wrong in the past, in order to explain that today will be different, though not necessarily nirvana.

With this client, I think it would also be wise to clearly distinguish yourself and your methods from the flawed behavior of her previous advisor. Only then will you be able to help her understand that, although you will gladly work with her to make her financial future rosier than her past, no advisor can suspend the basic law of investing: the price of high potential returns is high potential risk. Discuss her goals with her, and try to help her see for herself whether they are realistic and realizable.

It’s always possible that she will view you as a killjoy who takes pleasure in bursting her balloon. But if you are sensitive to her personality and her “recovery” process, she may come to see you more accurately as a concerned professional trying to help her develop a better, more-grounded vision of the future.

In a recent staff meeting, I was inundated with complaints about the increasing paperwork required for regulatory purposes. My staff members griped that it cuts into their research and client service time, and half-jokingly threatened to re-file the same information over and over because “nobody ever looks at it.” I cracked the whip to remind them how important compliance is, but I know it’s a drag on their enthusiasm for their work. How can I help them regain a sense of excitement and momentum? I would suggest devoting a staff meeting specifically to the subject of how to thrive in an era of new standards and expectations for compliance.

Begin by announcing that you know this often seems burdensome and difficult, so your staff members know you understand their difficulties. Remind them matter-of-factly of the various problems that have prompted these changes, and note that everyone in the industry is shouldering the same burden.

You might then propose a brainstorming session on how to cope with these new demands without taking such a toll on people’s time and energy. Is there a way to make the task less onerous? Would hiring part-time clerical support help free up your staff’s time and restore their enthusiasm?

After the meeting, consider getting together with your people individually to see how they’re doing, emotionally and physically. When the “work family” that I belong to had a recent discussion about paperwork, we learned that some of us felt overwhelmed by it while others found it only slightly unpleasant or no problem at all. Knowing these differences made it easier to devise a system whereby those who hated it could get help from the others–a useful synergy of predispositions and skills.

When a planner with a very good reputation was suddenly laid off from his revenue-strapped firm, I leaped to hire him. But from the day he walked into our office, he’s had a big chip on his shoulder, a “don’t mess with me” attitude. I can hardly believe this is the same guy I heard praised so highly for his people skills and team playing! What’s the most effective way to approach him about this? Based on your account of his abrupt termination by his previous employer, I suspect your new hire is wearing metaphorical armor to ward off further betrayals like the one he has just suffered.

Tell him how much you have been looking forward to having him on your team. Recount some of the compliments you heard about him when he was at his old job. Then you might say, “I can’t help noticing that you’re sometimes less open and sociable than I expected from hearing this praise. What’s happened?”

If you can get him to disclose what he went through in being terminated, your task then will be twofold: first, to sympathize with the shock and distress he felt, and second, to help him see how different a situation he is in at present.

Encourage him to cultivate an attitude of “beginner’s mind,” viewing everything as completely new without any preconceptions. Reassure him that you are all looking forward to his contribution and success, and invite him to come to you if he is having any difficulties.

Then give him time and see if he relaxes, little by little. If instead he remains fearful and defensive, he may end up like the acrophobe who’s so afraid of falling off a ladder that he tenses up and, sure enough, falls off the ladder. In this case, it may mean receiving a second pink slip.

Demons from the past have a way of spoiling the present and haunting the future. If you have colleagues and clients who are smarting from old pain, try to be a compassionate sounding board. With empathy and patience, you can delineate the difference between then and now, and encourage trust that is grounded in reality. Imbued with balanced optimism, you will all be better prepared to enjoy the coming spring.

Olivia Mellan, a money coach and money therapist, is the author with Sherry Christie of The Advisor’s Guide to Money Psychology, available through the IA bookstore at E-mail Olivia at [email protected]