A client calls, demanding to see you immediately. She’s just discovered that her husband has been having an affair with a friend of theirs. She not only wants a divorce, she wants revenge. She starts to scream about him in your office, insisting that you help her “clean him out.” Then she bursts into tears.

You know they have kids, and you’re concerned that she may later regret any decisions made in the heat of rage and hurt. But the intensity of her emotions makes you feel that you’re getting into deeper water than you can handle. What can you do to help? How should you respond?

When clients tell you their fears, anxieties, hopes, and dreams, what they say or how they say it can sometimes make you feel uncomfortable and even helpless. Intense behavior is only one kind of symptom. A client may confide that she has suicidal thoughts, is struggling with feelings of deep anger toward her boss and coworkers, or is afraid that he will abuse his children. Or you may notice signs that he is suffering from drug abuse, alcoholism, gambling, serious overspending, or a sexual addiction.

I believe that when clients’ attitudes or behavior interfere with their moneylife–my term for the way people feel about and deal with money–it’s appropriate for a financial advisor to help them explore the reasons. The irony is that the more empathetic and supportive you are, the more you risk inviting clients to share their deeper feelings in a way that can lead to intense emotions and catharsis. This is the domain of therapy, not financial planning.

Crossing the Line

For many years, I’ve described my vision of the ideal financial advisor as a therapeutic educator. In this role, you are more than just a money manager. You help clients unearth their deepest goals and desires. You also try to lighten the emotional charge of any conflicts or intense feelings that may prevent them from making rational decisions and taking the wise actions you recommend.

But when you observe behavior or attitudes that make you feel you’re in over your head, you may need to consider consulting a mental health professional for advice, or even referring the client to someone who is more comfortable dealing with intense emotion and conflict. A trained therapist or counselor can often help troubled clients understand what is happening, and help them learn better ways of coping.

For example, a solution for the wronged wife might be to suggest that before taking any drastic action, she and her husband owe it to their children to seek couples therapy. The assistance of an experienced, objective professional could help them

either heal their relationship or give it a respectful burial.

In instances where the emotional distress is not as visibly dramatic, there may still be indications that a client’s level of need is greater than what your training or expertise can handle. One clue is when you’ve started worrying about these particular clients after work and on weekends, trying to figure out how best to deal with them. Another indication that you are treading on thin ice could be if you find yourself getting overwrought when dealing with the client, or dreading the next meeting.

In these situations, it’s important to know when you can intervene and when it might be better to seek help from a therapist or counselor. If outside support is more appropriate, how should you broach the subject with your client? And how do you find the right professional or support group for a particular client’s needs?

The line between planning and therapy is drawn in a slightly different place for everyone. You may feel equipped to handle many psychological issues by virtue of your own empathy and experience, as well as from the ideas I’ve suggested in past “Psychology of Advice” columns, The Advisor’s Guide to Money Psychology, or other resources. But no matter what your degree of expertise may be, here’s a good rule of thumb: If addressing a client’s situation feels perilously like sailing into waters that you are unprepared to navigate, get help.

This includes instances when a client’s problem coincides with a similar weak spot in yourself, preventing you from providing impartial and rational advice. For example, if you have always had difficulty relaxing and enjoying some of the real-time rewards of financial security, it may be hard for you to counsel a client who faces family unrest because of this same issue.

In fact, if you have an intense response to a particular problem, it may well be a sign that you need to disentangle your own emotions from your work for clients. You may be sufficiently self-aware to analyze your reaction and its roots by yourself. If your weak spot reduces your effectiveness at work but is not intense or debilitating enough to warrant therapy, another option is to consult a business coach who is sensitive to your psychological issues.

Which Approach?

Let’s assume you’ve decided that a client needs more specialized psychological help than you can provide. To make the right referral choice, it’s crucial to understand some key differences between counseling, coaching, and therapy.

Counseling usually focuses on suggesting behavioral changes and giving advice, including specific guidance on support groups, volunteer activities, and direct interventions.

Coaching tends to be even more goal-oriented. Clients devise action plans to change their behavior and move toward the goals they’ve set. Meetings are sometimes face-to-face, but a great deal of coaching is done by phone in weekly, biweekly, or monthly sessions. In these conferences, or even in an informal get-together over coffee or tea, the coach may share details of his or her own journey to help the client learn and stay motivated.

Both of these types of support are oriented toward the present and future. By contrast, deep therapy deals with early childhood trauma, deprivation, and conflicts, and seeks to resolve these early conflicts and issues by returning to their source. Whatever the method used (psychoanalytic, experiential, gestalt, etc.), it often encourages deep emotional catharsis, and an awareness as possible of the unconscious forces that underlie dysfunctional behavior.

Most therapists do not reveal any personal information about their own journeys or conflicts. The course of a client’s thrice-weekly, twice-weekly, or weekly sessions usually lasts for months or even years, although some forms of therapy use behavior modification to change patterns of thinking and action over a shorter term.

(For a greater understanding of the distinctions between therapy and coaching, and the niches coaches may develop, see Lynn Grodzki’s The New Private Practice: Therapist-Coaches Share Stories, Strategies, and Advice [W.W. Norton, 2002].)

I would suggest counseling for people who are open to a hands-on therapeutic approach, and don’t like the idea of a long-term delving into the childhood roots of their motivations. Coaching is appropriate as a way to encourage powerful life changes in clients who are not severely disturbed or dysfunctional. When addictions are present, the combination of therapy with group support has proved to be more effective. This support can be found in 12-step programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous, Gamblers Anonymous, Overeaters Anonymous, and Debtors Anonymous.

To introduce a client to the ticklish topic of getting assistance, you might begin by saying that you know an expert who is skilled in helping people deal with the kinds of issues your client is facing. If possible, describe similar situations where other clients, friends, or you yourself have found support and insight.

When a client needs therapy but balks at the idea of getting it, you might discuss the stigma wrongly attached to this word, and suggest that it’s instead a sign of courage and intelligence to seek expert help. There is less of a stigma about counseling, and coaching may seem even more attractive due to its focus on creating action plans. No matter what type of help you propose, your willingness to talk clients through their resistance can work well, as long as you yourself don’t see it as a mark of weakness.

Finding the Right Experts

It’s important for every financial planner who embraces the role of therapeutic educator to know therapists, counselors, coaches, and support groups to recommend when it seems necessary or advisable. But if you don’t already have a list of people and groups that you trust, how do you create one?

Getting recommendations from colleagues and friends is a fine way to start. But this is only the first step. It’s important to interview these mental health professionals yourself, because some of them may share vulnerabilities about money that are similar to your clients’. Before putting therapists, counselors, or coaches on your list, sit down with them. See if they are at ease talking about money neuroses, spending compulsions, and other money conflicts, as well as uncovering what money may represent to a client. You might use the following questions to guide your interview.

  1. How much experience have you had in dealing with the issue at hand? With clients’ money dysfunctions in general? Can you give me examples?
  2. What areas do you specialize in? Addictions, marital therapy, children and adolescents, wealthy clients, other?
  3. If I referred an overspender to you, how would you work with this client?
  4. If I referred a client who is extremely risk-averse because of a past financial trauma, how would you work with him or her?
  5. How often do most clients see you? Twice a week, weekly, twice a month, monthly? How long do most clients stay?
  6. What are your fees?
  7. How do you see our distinct roles in a client’s life?
  8. Are you willing to take a consultant’s role in my relationship with a client, or would you prefer to maintain a separate relationship with that client? (There’s no right or wrong way to structure your collaboration. Just identify your preferences, be flexible, and trust your instincts.)

Be sure to give yourself a choice by interviewing more than one candidate. For instance, you may find a broadly credentialed therapist you’d enjoy working with in person, and a more specialized expert who can handle appropriate referrals.

Once you find a list of professionals you feel comfortable recommending to your clients, you may want to explore further ways to collaborate with them. For example, you might consider offering new clients an initial session with a money therapist as part of your introductory package. This helps identify key emotional issues right off the bat, and ultimately facilitates decision-making.

Another possibility is to invite a therapist-coach to participate in joint planner/client sessions. An Atlanta financial planning firm called GV Financial Advisors reported that this strategy made work with clients more fulfilling for all concerned.

To help your clients understand money psychology, you can also offer seminars on aspects of this important topic. I find myself increasingly involved in helping advisors educate their clients about money personality types and their strengths, preferences, and blind spots; couples polarization patterns and how to resolve them; major male-female differences around money, and so on.

If you’re interested in learning more about the therapy process, there are many excellent guides for the lay reader. I would recommend Sheldon Kopp’s books, such as If You Meet the Buddha on the Road, Kill Him: The Pilgrimage of Psychotherapy Patients (Bantam, 1988), and any of Harriet Lerner’s books, especially her newest one, Fear and Other Uninvited Guests: Tackling the Anxiety, Fear, and Shame That Keep Us from Optimal Living and Loving (HarperCollins, 2004). A fascinating book describing a wide range of therapeutic approaches to bizarre situations is The Mummy at the Dining Room Table: Eminent Therapists Reveal Their Most Unusual Cases, edited by Jeffrey A. Kottler and Jon Carlson (Jossey-Bass, 2003).

Helping Clients Open Up

If you would like to be more involved in helping clients share their deeper feelings about money, consider using one or more of the following self-awareness assignments.

The first exercise I often propose is for clients to list up to three things about themselves and their money that they feel good about, and up to three things that they’re not so happy with. In addition to the pointers their answers provide, you can learn even more by asking your client to identify which list was harder to write. If the positive list was more difficult, you may need to focus on building up the client’s self-confidence in order to make real progress together.

Another exercise, the Fantasy Autobiography, helps clients identify their deepest yearnings and clarify the goals for your work together. If clients have trouble getting specific in their autobiography, I ask them to write an ideal New York Times obituary for themselves in 300 words or fewer.

A third and more complex exercise is a money dialogue: An imagined conversation, written or taped, between the client and Money about how their “relationship” is going. After the dialogue winds down, the client comments on it from the different viewpoints of those who have been influential in his or her moneylife. This starts with parents and may also include other relatives, a current or former spouse, a mentor or spiritual advisor, and finally, the voice of God or inner wisdom. This powerful assignment can help you ascertain where clients stand in relation to money, where they have been, and where they need to go to reach balance.

All of these exercises are invitations to reach deep inside oneself. Though they are not dangerous in themselves, they may sometimes encourage more fragile clients to open up in ways that reveal a need for more hope and support than you can provide. But in many other cases, they will merely make your work more three-dimensional.

The Payoff

A client who manages the endowment fund for a local charitable foundation confesses to you that despite his stellar track record for the charity, his own finances are in terrible shape. In discussing his background, it comes out that his stern, controlling parents considered him to be a screwup and made him answer for every penny they gave him. How would you handle this?

If your answer is something like “I’d recommend practical solutions to help him get organized, while suggesting that he get some therapy to work on his self-esteem and self-sabotage issues,” well done!

Once you feel comfortable with the distinction between your perspective as a therapeutic educator and the role of counseling, coaching, and therapy, you will be better prepared to guide clients toward support for their emotional struggles around money and other issues. This will help you build trust and a stronger professional bond with them, and will pave the way for them to respond appropriately to your advice when the time is right.

Olivia Mellan, a speaker, coach, and business consultant, 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 om@moneyharmony.com