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Taking Away the Power of Fears

Your clients have fears, too. Some are rational and need to be addressed with wise financial decisions, while others are irrational.

In the summer of 2015, The Today Show created a mock-up of a country fair for a broadcast. One of the exhibits was a frog-jumping pit. As they stood near the pit, Matt and Al discovered that Savannah was deathly afraid of frogs. At first they teased her and tried to push her nearer the frog path. It wasn't until she recoiled and actually began to get teary with fright that they finally took her seriously. The two men apologized, and the show’s producers moved her to a location far from the frogs for the remainder of the show. 

While pushing her nearer the frogs exacerbated the problem, would it have helped if Matt and Al calmly pointed out the size difference between people and frogs, gave scientific evidence of a frog’s inability to harm her, and told stories of other people who handle frogs on a regular basis? No, it wouldn't have helped at all. Emotions and logic reside in different areas of the brain, so logic cannot change the reality of fears or their power over us. In this instance, all they could do to help Savannah cope was remove the object of her terror. 

Your clients have fears, too. Some are rational and need to be addressed with wise financial decisions. Others are irrational. As with frogs, they cannot be eliminated by bringing out charts and graphs, examining the historical performance of the stock market, explaining economic principles, or any other logical means.  

Handling such fears requires hearing and validating them rather than trying to talk your clients out of being afraid. You may wish to employ a strategy from a University of Chicago study published in Science magazine. This broad-ranging scientifically controlled study showed that writing down one’s fears and the thoughts surrounding them takes away some of their power, especially in the immediate instance. Specifically, their study showed that students taking high-stakes tests like high school finals, or the ACT and SAT exams, performed statistically better if they first took 10 minutes to write about their fears.  

Here is an example of how you can use that knowledge: 

  1. Tell clients you’d like to keep track of their worries, fears and anxieties over time as one barometer of how well you are doing together. Explain, too, that research has shown clear benefit in writing one’s thoughts about those fears. Ask whether your client is willing to spend a little time talking with you to uncover those issues and develop a strategy for dealing with them. 
  2. Once you have their consent, ask open-ended questions about what money worries keep them awake at night, or what causes insecurity about the future. Ask them to describe the worst thing that could happen to them financially, or what kinds of things they want to yell back at the newspaper or TV when they hear an economic report.   
  3. You may notice that clients talk animatedly when you ask questions like this. Listen carefully not just to the words but to the level of emotion behind the words, as you will get many clues about issues that are uppermost in your client’s mind.
  4. Drill down with questions like “What I hear you saying is ______. Is that correct, or how is it different?” Also validate the fears, telling clients you understand how they could be worried or anxious about those issues and that other clients share them. 
  5. When the top few worries are defined, have the client write them down in a notebook.   
  6. Explain that research has shown the benefit of writing about fears and worries for 10 minutes. Ask clients to take ten minutes to write about those fears and worries, reassuring them that no one, including you, ever has to see what they write.  
  7. Set a timer and leave the room to get a beverage. (Ask if the client would like one as well.) Don’t return for eight or nine minutes, allowing privacy.  
  8. After the timer rings, ask clients to summarize their written thoughts for you. You will likely find the conversation involves far less emotion, as some of the power has been stripped away. 
  9. Help clients imagine solutions. Say something like, “Now that we have your money worries defined and explained, let’s see what we can do together to handle them.” Brainstorm ideas: more frequent communication, changes in portfolio balance, or whatever actions clients would like to see. 
  10. When you have defined the strategies, ask clients to write them down as well. 

This process accomplishes a great deal for you. Your clients feel heard and understood, especially in the areas that cause them the most anxiety. You remove some of the power of those fears. You actively involve the client in designing strategic actions to further alleviate the fears. Finally, you have a written record of the entire process. Any time the fears arise in your clients’ minds, they can read the notebook, see what their fears are, see what you are doing to handle them and gain reassurance that they are safe. 

In subsequent meetings, check back in for an update. Ask if there are any worries or fears your clients would like to remove from the list and any others they would like to add. Determine whether the strategies are still alleviating fear, or whether you need to make changes. Continue to listen, validate and strategize and you will build and retain deep trust.

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