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The Psychology of Advice: A Time Forgiving

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The December holiday season is ideally a time of joy, peace, and deep connection with family and friends. Most of us look forward to reviving cherished traditions, and enjoy showing love, affection, and appreciation during a festival that has its roots in spiritual rebirth. On the other hand, this is also the darkest time of year. For many people

the holidays are fraught with stress and unmet longings. Old grudges are recalled; old dreams that were dashed come back to haunt again. Making matters worse, frantic pursuit of the perfect gifts for one’s spouse, kids, pals, and parents can put even the jolliest of us into what I call “primitive survival” mode, liable to snap at sidewalk Santas and sneer at the umpteenth letter asking for a charitable contribution.

More than just a time for giving, the holidays can be a time for forgiving. Here are some ways you might apply this philosophy to situations that crop up in your practice around this time of year.

Q: “My grandson never visits me” is the perpetual complaint of a client of mine, a widow in her early 80s. She just found out that he and his wife are planning to stay with his other set of grandparents over the holidays to show off their new baby. My client is so disappointed and angry that she is threatening to dissolve the trust fund she set up for the young man years ago, which is currently paying for his graduate school. I fear this will cause a rift in the family that, given her age, might never heal. How can I talk her off this ledge before it’s too late?

A: As you suggest in your question, I believe the solution lies in talking with her. At the beginning, it’s going to involve patient, empathetic listening as you encourage her to explain how the repeated slights of her beloved grandson have angered and wounded her. Once she feels you have heard her and her intensity level has dropped down a notch, you can ask her more questions about his situation. Why might he have chosen to visit the other grandparents this year? Is one of them in poor health, which would motivate the grandson to visit sooner rather than later? Or if the couple has been alternating visits between sets of grandparents, is it just their turn?

If this line of questioning doesn’t help her understand her grandson’s dilemma and soften her position, take a step back and ask her about the emotional legacy she would like to leave. What values and messages does she want to pass on to her grandson and future generations? Is one of them the importance of family? Love? And, hopefully, forgiveness?

Once your client has given some careful thought to this question, she may be more open to your recommendation that she avoid a decision motivated by anger, hurt, or spite. Long after she is gone, her grandson would remember that she cursed him by withdrawing her affection and support. Not only might this create a financial hardship for the young family, especially if he is compelled to give up his work toward a graduate degree, but it risks leaving an emotional scar for the rest of his life.

Encourage your client to open her heart, listen to her better nature, and try to understand and forgive her grandson. Later, when the time is right, she can tell him how disappointed she was not to see him, his wife, and the new baby over the holidays. If she does this in a vulnerable, non-blaming way, I anticipate that she will eventually get what she wants: more contact with him and his family.

Q: My clients are in the midst of a fight that is straining their 26-year marriage. The wife wants to start the new year by quitting her job, which she has disliked for some time, so she can go to Guatemala and help develop local craft-based businesses. At this point in her life she wants to give back to others, and feels it would be a way to truly live her values. The husband, an attorney, can’t forgive her willingness to give up her income, since he believes his own job is not secure. They are in fairly good financial shape, with both their children out of college. Is there a way to resolve this impasse?

A: I know a couple in a similar situation, only reversed: the wife, a therapist, is staying put in her hometown while her husband pursues his dream of improving village life in Central America. They seem to be working it out well, but this kind of situation would be a difficult emotional challenge for a couple who don’t have a strong relationship.

My first question, therefore, would be about the degree of closeness, connection, and communication in this marriage. If the relationship is rocky, you might suggest counseling or therapy to help the couple get through this major life transition. It may be easier to get them to agree to this by telling them about a husband and wife who resolved similar challenges with therapeutic help. If you have already connected with a good couples therapist, this professional can probably provide you stories from her or his own experience.

Even if the couple doesn’t need or want separate counseling, you might consider having a mental health professional join you (with the clients’ permission, of course) when you meet with them individually. I think this is justified in many instances by the fact that this Third Age of life necessitates more careful, compassionate communication and sharing of goals and values.

After empathizing with the husband’s fears, I would try to help him understand the degree of financial security that the couple does have. I’d also probe tactfully to see if he’s afraid of losing his connection to his wife if she leaves to pursue her dream. Should this be the case, the two of you might brainstorm ways to keep the relationship solid in spite of the distance. Meeting with the wife, you can support her desire to make an impact on the world, while helping her appreciate her husband’s worry about ending up with inadequate income. Does she have any concern that the two of them may grow apart if she goes to Guatemala?

Once you know what underlies their individual hopes, dreams, and fears, you can bring them back together in your office (with or without a therapeutic facilitator). The better you have tuned into what constitutes deep fulfillment for each of your clients, the more successful you will be in helping them build a bridge to one another, so that each of them can get more of what he or she wants and needs as they enter this new phase of their lives.

Q: When one of my affluent clients asked me about investing his year-end bonus in the CO2 emission allowance market, I told him quite sharply that it’s a crazy investment that liberals are pushing. I suggested some alternatives that are less risky, but my client got annoyed and hung up. I guess I’m writing because I’m not interested in dealing in such airy-fairy investments, yet I don’t want to cut this guy loose. How do you think I should handle it?

A: Whenever you and a client have a conflict of opinion, it’s important to be clear on exactly where the two of you differ. Once that is determined, good communication can help clear the air–ideally allowing you to forgive each other and return to a more harmonious relationship.

In this case, you may need to ask yourself whether you really know enough about this new kind of investment to have an informed opinion. Are your objections based more on your personal views on environmental policy than on an objective assessment of risk and reward?

If honesty forces you to admit that you need more hard facts, find out if there’s a respected colleague who can tell you about the pros and cons of these contracts. You might then invite your client to a meeting and report your findings. If the opportunity seems viable, you might agree with his investing a limited amount in CO2 contracts as long as the bulk of his assets remain in investments with a more solid track record. Alternatively, you could explain why you have reservations about this developing field. If he’s still interested, you might offer to refer him to a fellow advisor who has a higher comfort level with it.

Q: My clients have always been generous to their daughter and son-in-law, who are teachers on limited incomes. As a holiday gift, they were thinking of giving the young couple a $50,000 check for the down payment on a house. However, they recently learned that the “kids” contributed several thousand dollars to a charity endorsed by the Clinton Global Initiative. Since my clients have a low opinion (to put it mildly) of the former president, they’re now rethinking their gift idea. I don’t want them to do something they’ll regret later. How should I approach this?

A: We all yearn to share our values and life choices with our children, and it’s painful when they do something that runs counter to our own political, religious, or lifestyle beliefs.

After listening politely (but briefly) to your clients’ anti-Clinton views, I think you should turn the conversation to what they think the kids are doing right. If they feel good about their daughter’s and her husband’s commitment to low-paid teaching jobs, help them visualize what a difference it could make to the young couple to have a home of their own. Choosing to support them with a down payment is a lovely way for parents to assist adult children who are starting out in life with limited resources. Try to help your clients focus on this worthwhile act, and forgive their kids for a choice that doesn’t align with their own values.

Q: My client’s portfolio lost a great deal of value in the market crash, largely because of her focus on a narrow selection of socially responsible investments. When I tried again to persuade her to diversify, she insisted that SRI is more important than ever. The problem is that only a few companies meet her rigid standards. While knowing that the choice is hers, I’m having a hard time excusing her for ignoring her own needs. She has a lot of catching up to do in order to meet her retirement goals. Any thoughts?

A: Try to open yourself more to her views, starting with for a refresher conversation about your client’s life goals. What does she hope to achieve for herself, and for society in general? Once you have a fuller and clearer picture, you can go on to discuss what actions she needs to take to fulfill both goals.

You might suggest that she dedicate only part of her portfolio to socially responsible investments that meet her exacting standards, while investing the remainder with her personal needs in mind (buying a home, retirement, etc.). Less stringent rules might apply to vetting the choices for this latter portfolio segment–perhaps debt or equity in firms that “do no harm,” a larger population than the universe of companies that are social activists. If this suggestion doesn’t appeal to her, your only choice may be to refer her to an SRI expert familiar with clients whose altruism outweighs their own future needs.

At this time of year, we all need to make a greater effort to slow down, step back, ask thoughtful questions, and listen empathetically to what clients say. When educating them about difficult financial choices, let’s try to remind them of their better nature. Then, instead of a stressful season rife with anxiety, depression, old hurts and grudges, and anger, the holidays have a better chance of being filled with love, cheer, and forgiveness–a conciliation devoutly to be wished.

Olivia Mellan, a speaker, coach, and business consultant, is the author with Sherry Christie of The Client Connection: How Advisors Can Build Bridges That Last, available at the Investment Advisor Bookstore She also offers money psychology teleclasses for financial advisors and for the general public. E-mail Olivia at [email protected].


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