Someone recently mentioned to me that many of these columns focus on encouraging communication. I enjoy coaching financial professionals to draw out people’s thoughts, feelings, anxieties, and fears, so they can eventually help these clients make more rational money decisions. And I’ve often urged advisors to share more of their own perceptions, and even their feelings, with clients and colleagues when appropriate.
But what should you do when people bring up things you just don’t want to talk about? These may be topics that make you uncomfortable, or seem intrusive, or aren’t suitable for your relationship. How can you handle these inquisitive folks without offending them or losing their trust? For some ideas, read on.
A new client has discovered that we belong to the same political party. He’s been pushing me to support his favorite candidate, and trying to probe my opinions on partisan issues. I’ve been giving him noncommittal answers, but he doesn’t seem to get the message that politics is an inappropriate subject at this early stage of our relationship. Do you have any suggestions? First of all, try to calm yourself down about this, so you can handle it calmly the next time you meet with him. If he continues trying to recruit you to his point of view, be prepared to say something like “As you know, I tend to share your political sympathies, and I certainly understand the points you’re making for candidate X. Give me some time to think about this, while we move on to the reason you came to see me.” This respectful allusion to his political agenda may suffice to settle the matter and turn his mind to the task at hand.
If he continues to bug you about politics on subsequent visits, you may have to make your message even clearer. Consider phrasing it like this: “John, I think I can serve you better as a planner if we separate our agenda here–which is to make you feel more secure financially–from our political views. Can we agree to leave those discussions outside the office?”
If he can’t, he may jump ship out of anger or disappointment. There’s probably no way to prevent this without jeopardizing your integrity–so all I can do is wish you luck in your delicate task.
Last month, I lost my 25-year old son in a ski accident. It’s all I can do to keep coming to work every day, let alone cope with people’s well-meaning questions about how I’m doing. I end up on the edge of tears every time. How can I get my clients and co-workers to stop reminding me of my loss? I understand completely your need to avoid constant echoes of this tragedy. Nothing is more devastating than the loss of a child. And under the right circumstances, work and its routines can be both a safe place and an anodyne.
The message you need to communicate is far too emotional to deliver in person. So I would suggest writing a memo to your fellow workers, and perhaps a similar letter to clients who have heard about your son. You need to find your own words and tone, but it could say something like this:
“I appreciate your concern and caring about the unexpected death of my son. In order to help me keep doing my job to the best of my ability, I would ask you to avoid talking to me about this for the next few months. It is comforting to be able to function well in this work setting, but even asking me how I am doing can flood me with overwhelming emotion. Thank you all for all your help and support, and for respecting my wishes about this.”
Putting your feelings into writing this way should cut down on most of the unwanted attention during your painful period of mourning. I hope you will continue to find ways to soothe yourself, both in and out of the office.
A new client of our large firm told an anti-Semitic joke in our first session. I’m sure he assumed I wasn’t Jewish, but he was wrong. I thought of mentioning this in the next meeting, but the memory of his casual insult makes me so upset that I’m literally tongue-tied with rage. Is there a good way to deal with this? There are actually many ways to handle this situation, depending on your preferred style. I would begin by discussing the matter with your colleagues, who may have dealt with similar problems of bias in the past.
If you just don’t want to work with this client, another advisor may be willing to take him on. It would be up to you whether to inform the client why you don’t think the relationship would work, or just to say generally that you feel Planner X will be able to serve him better.
On the other hand, if you’re willing to keep working with this individual despite his lack of sensitivity, you won’t want to ignore his affront. A subtle approach would be to let some remark slip out in the next meeting that reveals you are Jewish. Your client will probably get the point and restrict his anti-Semitic comments in the future.
If you want to make the message more direct and prefer not to risk getting choked up in person, you might send him an e-mail or note that says something like this: “You probably didn’t know that your joke about [whatever it was] was personally hurtful and offensive to me. I will certainly understand if you would rather work with another planner. If not, I hope you will agree that mutual respect and courtesy are essential if we are to forge a successful professional relationship. I will respect your response, whichever way you decide to proceed.”
One last thought: When you are determining whether or not to keep working with this client and how to address the problem with him, be sure you feel calm, not tired and stressed. Decisions made in the heat of strong emotion are likely to be regretted later on.
A partner in our firm was recently convicted of embezzlement and sent to prison. Whenever I’m trying to establish a good rapport with a prospect or new client, I constantly have to deal with questions about this. What’s a good way to deflect these people’s curiosity? This may not be what you want to hear, but I think frank disclosure would be better than what might be perceived as evasion.
Since your colleague’s conviction and sentencing is a matter of public record, there’s no point in trying to hide or downplay it. To preserve your own reputation and sense of integrity, I believe it’s wisest to admit what happened, directly and honestly.
Have the firm’s other principals prepared guidelines, or a statement, that would help you respond when asked about this matter? If not, I would suggest that this become a top priority. Ideally, all your clients and best prospects already should have been individually informed and assured of the steps the firm has taken to prevent a recurrence of fraud.
Refer to this information so that when the issue does arise, you’re ready to talk openly about this uncomfortable subject instead of trying to evade it. If you do the “repair work” with empathy and patience, you may actually strengthen the reputation of your firm, as well as your own connection with current and prospective clients.
A few weeks ago the head of our firm, a much loved and respected advisor, told us in confidence that he is battling cancer. Lately he has been looking tired and ill, and clients have begun asking if he’s all right. I don’t feel it’s my place to reveal his illness. Without brushing off these clients and their concern, how can I keep our conversation on the tasks at hand? I suggest that you meet with your ailing CEO if at all possible, find out about his current situation, and ask him how he would prefer you to handle questions about his well-being. If he doesn’t want the firm’s clients to know he has cancer, I think you need to respect his wishes.
But if he really does look unwell, you can ask whether he would allow you to say something general in response to other people’s expressions of concern. For example, he might not mind your saying, “He has been ill lately, but is under excellent medical care.”
If someone asks you straight out, “What’s wrong with him?” or “Does he have cancer?”, you could gently say, “As you know, he’s a very private person. And since we all hold him in such high regard, we are trying to respect his need for privacy about his personal life. I hope you can understand and accept our reluctance to talk about this without his consent.”
At some point, the truth is bound to either leak out or become obvious, making at least some of your clients feel as though they were not trusted. For the firm’s future, I think it would be wise to plan on notifying them before they find out the wrong way. The statement need not be very detailed; in fact, simpler is probably better. The main thing is to describe the boss’s personal situation with as much optimism as possible, while reassuring clients and business partners that your firm will continue to operate in accordance with the high standards he has established.
Generally, when clients or colleagues ask you questions that you don’t want to answer about a certain topic, you have several options. You can merely say, “Let me think about that and get back to you later.” Or you can use humor to deflect the question (“Am I dating anybody? Are you kidding? I can’t even get my socks to match up!”).
Another choice is to brainstorm the best way to address the difficult topic with your friends, spouse, or colleagues. If it’s important to communicate clearly where you stand or what you need, you can write a memo or e-mail. Finally, you can ask someone else to step in and handle the uncomfortable communication for you.
The important thing is to step back, calm down, think it over, and sort out whether you are overreacting. Since you’ll have to live with the decision over time, make sure you are comfortable with whatever option you’re thinking of choosing. Only then can you be confident of having done the right thing for your clients and yourself.
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 www.investmentadvisor.com. E-mail Olivia at [email protected].