Stress Responses

We’re all going through a stressful time, and some clients are also facing life challenges.  Here’s how to add significant value to your client service.

Everybody, all around us, is coping with dramatic changes to our lives.  We’re wearing masks when we go out, and we’re not going out nearly as often as we once did.  Restaurants are closing, conferences are going virtual, and clients are meeting with their advisors on Zoom instead of in the office. 

Many staff people are working from home, and whenever we see pictures from a year ago, or movie scenes where there are many people gathered together without masks on, our first (new) instinct is to wonder what they’re thinking and how little they must care for their safety and the safety of others.

And we’re the lucky ones.  People around the country are coping with more than 180,000 loved ones dying in the pandemic.  Millions more are working in unsafe conditions, or living in homes that make it difficult to practice social distancing.

Nobody has any idea when these conditions will let up—if ever.

All of this you know.  But you might not realize the mental toll that these unfortunate circumstances are taking on you and your clients.  “It turns out there is a lot of academic work on the psychology of pandemics,” says Susan Bradley, founder of the Financial Transitionist Institute, which confers the CeFT (Certified Financial Transitionist) designation.  “The research absolutely explains what’s going on now, and names it.”

Navigating stress

The Financial Transitionist Institute offers academic-based training in protocols that advisors can use to help clients achieve better decision-making through life transitions, effectively shifting their role from advice givers to professionally- and technically-trained thinking partners.  Some of these transitions may be dramatic, like divorce or the death of a spouse; a large inheritance, financial settlement or winning the lottery; or being laid off from work and having to rethink your career.  Others are more prosaic but no less confounding: figuring out how to transition from an active career to retirement, for example, or relocating and moving to a new job.  In normal times, advisors may experience their clients as rational and clear-thinking, but in fact, whenever people encounter difficult transitions, science tells us that there will be significant mental distractions that trigger stress responses, which cause a measurable drop in cognitive functioning. 

Simply put, people are not able to make their best decisions during periods of stress, transition or uncertainty, and the Financial Transitionist Institute’s team has identified (and teaches) a number of scientifically-validated ways to help them navigate these challenges without making significant, life-degrading, impulsive decisions.

We know the stress factors that are afflicting everyone today.  What should we be doing about them? 

Bradley starts with two nearly-universal traumatic impacts that you may be familiar with: the loss of community and the disruption of routine.  “You don’t want to get lost just being on your own in the isolation,” she says.  “Regular Zoom calls with clients, family and friends can be very important to many people.”  She says that the research recommends that all of us establish routines at home that mimic the routines we had at the office or the gym. 

Some people are reclaiming their sense of community by playing card or board games, remotely, with friends and family on Zoom.  “Volunteering is another good activity that hits all the buttons,” adds Bradley. 

You could also be helping your clients address the ambiguity and uncertainty that comes at us from the pandemic.  People in general tend to be uncomfortable with uncertainty—and of course your clients are wondering how the pandemic will affect their lives, their children, their portfolios and their futures.  “[Faculty member/neuropsychologist] Moira Somers helped us understand that periods of uncertainty can trigger a very strong reaction,” says Bradley.  “It degrades your ability to reason and understand, and your ability to assimilate information.  When you’re stressed and anxious about the uncertain future, your thinking starts to move to the amygdala, which is the survival part of your brain.” 

She adds that this may be the very worst part of your cognitive wiring to be engaging if you want to make smart long-term decisions.

Mental dysfunctions

When they meet with clients, Transitionist-trained advisors have tools that will help them step back and see the situation with their rational brains, rather than simply reacting.  “You have to pay attention to what the researchers call the ‘window of tolerance,’” says Bradley. 

You can get a deeper explanation of the window of tolerance at a remote learning session hosted by the Financial Transitionist Institute on September 17 (you can sign up here: https://financialtransitionist.com/product-category/events/), but the gist of it is that all of us have a range of emotional boundaries within which we function optimally—that is, if our anxieties or euphorias are no higher or lower than a “normal range,” then our brains are still able make decisions with high efficiency.  In fact, other research has shown that certain levels of stress can actually make our brains more functional, because we’re rising to a challenge, because our minds are stimulated.  It’s only when the stress starts to become overwhelming that the mental dysfunctions start to occur.

With appropriate training, advisors can develop what Bradley calls ‘informed intuition,’ where they instinctively pick up on times when clients seem to be over-stimulated into what researchers call “hyperarousal,” when they may be more reactive, startle more readily or have difficulty concentrating and focusing. 

How do you respond when you notice this happening in your clients?  The Transitionist program offers some ways to help people restore their emotional grounding.  First, they (the advisors themselves) need to recognize their own mental stage, and “get on the balcony—” Transitionist-speak for rising above the noise to a mental place where they have a broader and more general perspective of the situation.  Think: the opposite of getting lost in the weeds. 

This allows them to help clients name the problem, by saying something like: “It looks like you’re starting to feel a bit overwhelmed.  Is that right?”  That helps people recognize how their bodies feel, and to identify what they need in order to feel right again.  This might be nothing more than restoring the routines that Bradley talked about earlier, or helping clients recognize that the current pandemic restrictions won’t last forever.  It may mean simply taking some deep and slow breaths, or introducing music breaks into their daily routine.

Of course, this is only a temporary solution to a long-standing challenge, and Bradley warns that the universal stress levels around us may get worse before they get better.  “Many people are going to get re-triggered now that we’re in the big push before the November elections,” she says.  “We’re going to have clients and advisors on different sides of the political spectrum, and this could be a time when people really want to make major adjustments with their portfolios—because each side will be tempted to indulge in all-or-nothing thinking.”

Protocols

The Certified Transitionist Institute teaches nine protocols for helping clients, as thinking partners, move through life’s more complicated transitions.  The full course takes a year to complete, and includes roughly four hours a month of focused work, including one 90-minute group call plus direct client work on the different protocols, including identifying clients’ communication preferences, something called the PMO, the decision-free zone, managing expectations, and helping clients test out new narratives and different future projections.  The latter includes what Bradley calls the “bliss list,” where clients are invited to imagine what they would do if they could do absolutely anything at all, without financial (or time) limits being imposed on them.  Surprisingly, many items on a client’s bliss list, which seem fanciful when uttered, turn out to be do-able with plausible assumptions and some professional assistance.

The PMO stands for Purpose, Method and Outcome—helping clients identify what they want in life, the process that might get them there, and what ideally their life would look like if they were to arrive at this hoped-for destination.  “Most advisors hang their value on method,” says Bradley.  “That’s where their expertise lies, after all.  But when the client can really articulate what differences they’re going for, what they’re trying to protect, what is really important to them, who is involved—it can be really empowering to have that conversation before you get to the ‘how’ advice.”

This is part of the balcony issue; that the PMO conversation allows clients to step back from the action and look at their bigger purpose.  Bradley says that the 300 people who have completed the Transitionist curriculum (those who have earned the CeFT designation), and the 75 people currently in the program, are reporting some success using the PMO protocol in the current pandemic.  “You’re seeing clients start to exhibit inconsistent behavior,” she says.  “They want to go all-in on buying a business or selling their house, and the next thing you know they would rather get a job as a consultant or buy a vacation home.”  That’s when you redirect clients on their former PMO goals and outcomes, or have the conversation and help clients focus on clearer (or, at least, more consistent) objectives in their lives.

The decision-free-zone, which can be surprisingly useful in the current pandemic, was one of the first Transitionist tools, used to help clients who had inherited a large sum of money, received a significant settlement or sold a business for seven or eight figures.  (The Financial Transitionist Institute was once called the Sudden Money Institute.)  This windfall of new wealth attracts financial requests from friends and family, and meanwhile clients can make the mistake of thinking that the money—so much more than they’ve ever handled before—is limitless, and go on a spending, lending, granting spree that leaves them exactly they were before the windfall.  To forestall the quick demise of the newfound wealth, the CeFT advisor would invite the clients to prioritize the things that absolutely must be done now (tax forms and tax payments, perhaps), and impose a one-year moratorium on making any further decisions about the money.

That means that the greedy requests are put on hold, the spending spree is deferred, and the clients have an opportunity to gain perspective on their changed financial circumstances.  No bad decisions are made because no decisions are made at all.  This protocol could also be applied when clients are clamoring to change their investment portfolio based on the outcome of the upcoming election. 

Another protocol?  A self-assessment called “what has changed?”  In check-in meetings, clients are asked questions in different categories, like investments, income, estate planning, risk management, family, gifting—and in each area, they respond whether, in this or that area, they are confident, unsure or fearful.  “We find that it is not unusual for the client and the advisor to have different views,” says Bradley.  “The client may say, I am fearful, but the advisor thinks they should be confident about that.  Or vice versa.”

Finally, the last protocol we’re going to offer is an exercise that clients will take home and think about during the time when advisors and clients are first getting to know each other.  It helps clients determine what they expect from this professional relationship.  When?  How?  How much?  Why? 

“You want to be co-creating and collaborating with clients,” says Bradley; “not just telling them what to do, and this sets the stage for a kind of relationship that clients might not be expecting.  One of our CeFTs,” she adds, “says that he has evolved from a ‘teller’ to an ‘asker.’  Another spoke up in one of our recent group huddles, and said that she now had confidence in things that she never previously realized that she didn’t have confidence in.”

All of these tools obviously have some relevance to the slow burn of the Covid crisis, and potentially to a severe market downturn and the upcoming elections.  They help advisors make a big mental/service shift from providing expertise to exhibiting curiosity, and they all, in one way or another, help clients become (at least slightly) more comfortable with uncertainty. 

Of course, the shift from giving advice to engaging with agitated clients can add to an advisor’s mental overhead in stressful situations like Covid.  Transitionists are given tools to address their own ‘compassion fatigue,’ brought about when advisors get worn down by taking on the worries of their clients.  This, of course, circles back to the “window of tolerance” discussion, and using the protocols on yourself so you’re capable of helping your clients manage the inevitable—and now ubiquitous—transitions in their lives. 

Our mutual goal is to get through this pandemic with our lives more or less intact, and without having made any stupid decisions or inflicted, in the crisis of the moment, permanent self-harm.  A large class of advisors have taken this enforced time at home to start the CeFT course work, and I suspect that those who have completed the courses and mastered the protocols are providing enormous value to their clients in this time of uncertainty. 

Bradley estimates that only one percent of the financial planning community is appropriate for the year-long training, because most advisors won’t want to put in the time, don’t believe in the most advanced life planning curriculum in our space, or simply don’t want to go that deep with clients before offering their professional (procedural) advice.   

If you think you might be part of that one percent, then here’s where to find the Financial Transitionist Institute and get a sense of what they offer: https://financialtransitionist.com/.