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Though you may try to work calmly and rationally with clients, sometimes events occur that send them reeling. Overwhelmed and often panicked, these clients bring an emotional climate into your office that makes patient work seem next to impossible. In such situations, here are ways to move the process away from crisis intervention and back toward thoughtful discussion and action.

A new couple I’ve just seen were in a such state of tension that they ought to have been wearing “Danger–High Voltage” signs. The wife has been offered a a transfer to Beijing with a promotion. Her company has asked for her decision within a week. However, her husband and teenage kids are resisting the move. He was hostile and withdrawn in our meeting, while she was anxious about having to decide so quickly on a move that dramatically affects her family. How can I help them handle this? I’d try to buy more time to make this momentous decision. The pressure to make a snap decision has forced both spouses away from calm, adult thinking and into primitive survival mode. More time would help them step back out of this crisis behavior toward more rational decision-making.

In whatever time you have, you may still be able to help them retreat from the cliff. Ask if they would be willing to accept your assistance in determining a solution, slowly and thoughtfully.

If they agree, I would ask them fundamental questions about their hopes, dreams, and desires for their family, work, play, type of home and location, and so on. Then find out their expectations, positive or negative, about a move to China. Ask each of them to make a list of the pros and cons (a cost-benefit analysis, in other words), rating each item’s importance relative to the others.

You may want to go through this process with each spouse individually to help them feel safer about admitting their deeper longings and fears. This can all be done in a single session if you’re short of time: first see each spouse separately, then both together.

Once you know more about the underlying issues, you may be able to help your clients brainstorm possible scenarios. For example, could they try it for a year, then reassess? Would the kids be more willing to try this new cultural experience if a hometown buddy joins them for the first few weeks? If the wife truly wants to take the new position, can her husband join her a little later? If she refuses the position, what are her other job options? List the emotional and financial ramifications of each choice.

If this all feels too “therapeutic” to you, consider referring your clients to a coach who handles relationship and career issues, a couples counselor, or a therapist. The more calmly and rationally they can assess this potentially major life change, the more likely they will be to come to a mutually agreeable, well-informed decision.

My client, a business owner, just lost a liability lawsuit. The extent of the damages will force his company into bankruptcy, wiping out his assets in a nonqualified retirement plan. His wife is furious. She blames him for not following my recommendation to buy umbrella liability insurance for the business. What, if anything, can I do to help this couple? With the feelings in this incendiary situation sounding so intense, I would start by meeting with the two spouses separately. Allow the wife to vent her feelings of fury, betrayal, and terror about the state of the family finances.

After releasing her anger, she may well show the pain and sadness beneath it. I suspect she will even feel bad for her husband, who has suffered the double shock and humiliation of losing the lawsuit and being forced to declare bankruptcy at this stage of life.

She may then feel safe and supported enough to ask you questions about bankruptcy. You can discuss with her why this is the best option, how people recover from it, and how it may affect their family as a whole.

When you get together with the husband by himself, help him explore the financial and emotional challenges that lie ahead, such as the probable need to scale down his lifestyle. You may also be able to help lighten the emotional load of his humiliation. If he’s beating himself up about putting his family through this ordeal (after ignoring your recommendations), try to help him stop blaming himself.

Encourage him to apologize sincerely to his wife for his poor decisions and their devastating effects. He should probably repeat this heartfelt apology again and again over time, in as vulnerable a way as he can. I would suggest that he also ask her, “Is there anything I can do to make this situation better for you, at least in part?”

Once he has aired his intense feelings of loss and shame and made amends to his wife, he may be able to become more proactive in planning his future. In fact, I wager that he will take your advice from now on with total devotion and respect for your expertise.

After the son of my widowed client joined the Peace Corps in Central America, he came upon a child who needed extensive medical care. To make a long story short, he arranged for the child to fly to the States and have surgery, with all the bills sent to my client. She is raging because she never gave permission for this. At the same time, she feels guilty for begrudging the cost of healing a child. She can afford to pay these bills, but not without sacrifice. Should she pay them? How should I advise her? Your client must feel betrayed and controlled by her son’s outrageous presumption, but as you say, she is reluctant to object to such a humane use of the funds. For clues to help guide her, ask about her family history. Has she struggled with this son (or someone else) in a conflict between altruism and self-interest? Is he imposing these bills on her to force her to deal with this conflict?

I would also explore with her the potential impact of the choices she can make. How would she feel later on if she paid for these expenses? How would she feel if she refused? Can she live with what might happen to her son and the child’s family if she does decline to pay the bills?

If she pays up despite her feelings of betrayal and anger, you can help her let go of her ambivalence in two ways. First, suggest that she meet with her son (perhaps facilitated by a counselor) to discuss how she feels about what happened, and to mandate that he never do this again upon pain of some dire penalty. She may also want to tell him that this amount of money is being deducted from his future inheritance. If he accepts this willingly, perhaps she can even come to the point of accepting and celebrating his values.

On the other hand, if she decides to refuse payment for the treatment expenses, you might help her consider ways her son can come up with the money himself. Try to discourage her from taking the position that “He tried to steal from me, so let him deal with it.” Although her anger is understandable, she could create a rift with her son that she may later come to regret.

A client of mine was the leading contender for presidency of his firm, but he’s just learned that he was passed over. In expectation of the promotion, he’d bought a vacation home and new cars for himself and his wife, and enrolled his kids in private schools. Now he’s not only seriously in debt but emotionally embarrassed. Any advice? Most men in our culture find nothing more humiliating than having their competence challenged or their work identity threatened.

Your client may express his disappointment in either of two ways: by feeling like a failure, or by reacting with outrage to his company’s obviously “wrong” decision. If you’re willing to hear him vent his frustration, humiliation, sadness, or anger, you’ll probably help him move faster to a more rational view of the situation.

It’s not going to be much fun selling the vacation home or putting the kids back in public school. But while you work with him on making tough decisions like these, try to help him identify alternatives that may lead to deeper nourishment and fulfillment. For example, a family cycling or hiking trip may promote bonding better than a weekend at a vacation home. Volunteering to be a literacy mentor could be more educational than attending St. Somebody’s Academy.

It will probably take extensive time and effort to get your client and his wife on board with downsizing their lifestyle. But once people begin making decisions that lead to a calmer and happier life, they usually see that money and position can’t buy these things after all.

Despite my repeated urging to diversify, a client loaded up his portfolio with stock of a company where his father once worked. The company just went bankrupt, and he’s devastated. I’m trying to pick up the financial pieces, but how can I help him get over the emotional trauma? Start by taking a big step back. Ask him to tell you about the legacy he received from his father. Why did he feel so strongly that he wanted to invest in the company his dad worked for? If you can validate any part of this desire, he may feel less ashamed of his decision not to diversify.

This client may be a candidate for therapy to help him mourn his loss and separate his future from his father’s past. But even if he resists consulting a therapist, you can assist him by creating a climate where he can talk about his choice, what motivated it, how he feels about it, and what he’s learned. In this way you’ll help him feel calmer, and hopefully safe enough to begin strategizing about how to restore his financial security.

When clients are blindsided by change, loss, or trauma, remember that it usually kicks them into their primitive survival mode, which is always dysfunctional. Listen patiently as they vent their painful feelings. If you’re uncomfortable in this role, refer them to a therapist, counselor, or coach.

Once they either come back to you or air enough of their wounded feelings with you, you will have helped create a space to brainstorm, analyze different possibilities, and try out promising options. By emphasizing their strengths instead of their weaknesses, you will also aid the healing process and encourage them to move toward making productive plans.

Olivia Mellan, a speaker, coach, and business consultant, is the author with Sherry Christie of The Advisor’s Guide to Money Psychology, available through You can e-mail Olivia at [email protected].


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