Olivia Mellan has been writing a monthly column and many feature articles for Investment Advisor for 15 years, showing advisors how to build better bonds of communication with their clients. Whether it’s exploring the intricacies of couples’ behavior around money or how to cope with disasters like 9/11, Mellan has provided the practical tools advisors need to understand clients’, co-workers’ and their own behavior, and to encourage healthier attitudes toward others and money. This month we turn the tables on Mellan’s standard question-and-answer format. I interviewed her in April on her body of work; the re-release of her seminal book, “Money Harmony”; on her collaboration with Sherry Christie; and the “therapeutic educator” role that she believes advisors can and should play on behalf of their clients.
James J. Green: Your core concept about advisors and their clients is something called money harmony. What is money harmony, and why is it important for advisors to understand and use its concepts?
Olivia Mellan: Money harmony is the useful fiction that people have a lifelong relationship with money that is in balance or not, and having enough money or more money doesn’t change that relationship.
JG: Why re-issue your book, “Money Harmony?” What’s different about it from the original?
OM: A lot of it is not different; [the concepts are] timeless. The biggest difference is an expanded section on gender differences—how they play out, what are the differences—that’s new and improved. I also wanted to integrate Sherry [long time writing collaborator Sherry Christie] in re-issuing the book; she’s been so important to my work.
JG: How did the two of you work together on this book and on your columns for Investment Advisor?
OM: Sherry has a magical way of taking my ideas and making them sing; she has also done research around the edges of everything I write about. As soon as I talk to Sherry, she unleashes my creativity.
Sherry Christie: Generally, the process starts with us talking over the phone with ideas. Each might end up with a different assignment—I might do the research, for example—then we write the draft and cut it down to a size that you can use [in the magazine]. We complement each other well. It’s like using different segments of the same brain. There are lots of emotions and empathy on her part; I’m more organized. This [new edition of “Money Harmony”] is our fifth collaboration in print—in books.
JG: When it comes to advisors, from whom do you get insights?
OM: Peg Downey, Dick Vodra and Mary Malgoire have seemed like kindred spirits and understand what my work is all about. John Cammack [the former T. Rowe Price executive] got me started [writing about advisors and clients]. Bob Clark [former editor of Investment Advisor] gave me a place to write, and Bob Veres—well, because of him I write features; he told me to go deeper in my work.
JG: Where do you think advisors need the most help in understanding client behavior and their own?
OM: Advisors need help in learning how to listen to clients with patience and empathy; to help them lighten the emotional load around money so they can listen to the advice advisors are giving them.
The advice [advisors give] could fall on deaf ears; the clients could feel overwhelmed and never come back. That’s how advisors lose clients. It’s like in therapy [Mellan has long been a psychotherapist]: If you make an interpretation or suggestion too soon, if the client doesn’t feel safe and good in the office, they won’t take your advice. You have to be tuned to what the client needs; pace yourself to what the client needs.
When people come into therapy, [I ask] how do you feel about being here? What do you hope to get out of it? I think advisors should ask these same questions. Meet them where they are.
I think the question Dick Vodra asks of new clients is good: “I’ll bet you thought about seeing me many times. What made you pick up the phone this time?”
People who feel well-heard will talk to their friends: “I never thought talking about money could be so pleasurable.”
JG: How do you feel when people say the psychology of money is merely the “soft” side of financial planning?
OM: They’re not therapeutic educators; they’re not providing holistic financial planning if they put down emotions. Brain studies show that emotion is always involved in financial decision-making; people never make decisions based on their rational brain. I would think about their own comfort [with the subject].
JG: You were a pioneer in the field of money psychology. You’ve been doing it for 30 years, and many have followed you. What differentiates your approach from those who followed you?
OM: I always say I’m a groundbreaker in the field of money psychology; I sort of invented the field, or at least played a role. I don’t know what differentiates me—I was meant to be a therapist and a coach; I have a lot of empathy, I share a lot about myself, I have my own voice.
SC: The voice is your key differentiator. Certain financial gurus are like bullies—“You’re wrong if you don’t do this!” That empathetic voice comes from your therapist background.
OM: I also use a lot of humor; that helps men listen to what I’m saying about gender differences. I’ve always been able to build bridges to couples. I’m good with individuals, but I’m brilliant with couples.
JG: Should advisors be doing therapy with their clients?
OM: I’m not so worried about advisors doing therapy; they need to be therapeutic educators.
JG: What kind of feedback do you get from advisors on your writings and your speeches?
OM: Many people come up to me and say, “I’ve felt lonely in the field doing this before; I wish I had more training in this area.” Recently there have been women attending my Wells Fargo speeches [Mellan has been doing a series of speeches around the country to female Wells Fargo brokers] who’ve told me “I wish I had heard you before I had gotten divorced!” They would have had more of a roadmap to work out the conflicts in a relationship.
JG: What is money history? Why is it important to acknowledge it?
OM: It’s what people have learned [about money] from their parents, other relatives, other role models, from religious traditions, peer groups and society at large. You have to learn about yourself, and then understand what steps you can take to restore balance.
JG: Are most people out of balance? Are they not in “money harmony?”
OM: Yes, especially in our society. We live in an adolescent society—we’re short-term oriented, not wise; we don’t plan ahead and look at the whole picture. An advisor can help. As therapeutic educators, advisors walk the talk, having a peaceful lack of anxiety in talking about money. They then can lead the client toward the tools needed [to get into balance].
Half of “Money Harmony” is designed for couples; for the last 20 years, conflicts over money have been the No. 1 or No. 2 cause of marital discord and divorce. Advisors see couples, so it’s important to move ahead working with couples.
Money is the last taboo; it’s maybe just coming out of the closet now.
SC: For a living, I communicate to people how to be more comfortable with their money, how to work toward financial well-being. Olivia’s work has helped me enormously, personally; I would have been prone to those Suze Orman-type proscriptions, but from Olivia, I’ve learned about the power of emotions in making decisions, especially when it comes to making change. She’s made an enormous contribution to my work. Readers can understand themselves better and the people with whom they have relationships.