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.
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].)