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 He was hostile and withdrawn in our meeting, while she was anxious about having to decide so quickly on a move that dramatically affects her family.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.