When I teach about how to support grieving clients, I suggest that financial professionals ask good, open-ended questions that invite clients to tell their stories of loss and transition. Sometimes an advisor will push back, reminding me they aren’t psychologists or counselors, and they have concerns about whether talking with clients on a deeper level is beyond their bounds or constitutes intruding on someone’s personal life. They feel that it’s best to just stick to the business unless the client brings it up and wants to talk.
I understand the concern, but there is a much greater risk here. What happens if you don’t ask?
Remember—we live in a society where death and grief are taboo subjects. New parents will get together and talk about toilet training endlessly, yet they will never realize that one-third of the other parents in the room have also experienced miscarriage or infant death, because no one ever talks about it. Talking about a suicide is so stigmatized that family members frequently hide the cause of death and even outright lie.
When there is a death in the immediate family, we generally give people three to five days off and then expect them to be back to “normal” at work. Within a couple of weeks after a death, no one mentions the name of the one who died or wants to hear the story anymore. Instead, in the belief they are being helpful, people constantly tell the grieving person to put it behind them and get on with life.
Yet grief takes a lot longer than that. Grieving people are hungry to tell the story, to remember, to keep their loved one’s memory alive, and to be heard in a compassionate atmosphere.
Banish the White Elephant and Open the Door
If you don’t ask about it, if you don’t mention the name of the person who died or acknowledge the reality, it becomes the big white elephant sitting right there on the table between you and your client. You’re both looking around it, over it, under it—trying to pretend it doesn’t exist. You become just like everyone else in society, making them feel alone and isolated because the death of a person they loved is a taboo subject.
On the other hand, if you do ask, the white elephant disappears. They know you care, they know you understand, and they recognize that you are different than all the others.
Basically, when you acknowledge the reality and ask questions, you open the door, inviting the client to talk to you about their experience. Then you follow their lead. You never force or push. Clients will let you know in very short order if they don’t want to talk about it. However, the vast majority will walk through that door and talk to you because that’s what grieving clients most need. When you take the time to ask and listen, it builds trust and rapport that can’t come any other way.
Here are a few ideas to get you started:
- Ask open-ended questions: “How are you?” is not an open-ended question. Clients will say, “Fine.” Instead, ask “What kind of a day is it today? Is it an up day, a down day, or an all-over-the-place day?” One of my favorite questions is: “What do you wish people knew about what you’re going through now?” You’ll get some very interesting answers if you ask: “People often try to help, but sometimes it comes out all wrong. What is one thing someone said to you that you found comforting, and one thing that you thought was hurtful or misguided?”
- Everyone’s grief is different. If you have experienced a similar loss—for example, your dad died and now your client’s dad died, resist the urge to say, “I know how you feel” or even worse, to launch into your own story. If you tell someone, “I know how you feel” or "I understand what you're going through," you will immediately alienate that person because you are always wrong. There are simply too many variables in every grief experience, and each person’s grief is unique. Instead, you can say, “When my dad died, I kept picking up the phone to call him before I realized he wouldn’t answer, and Father’s Day was intensely painful. Is it like that for you, or how is it different? What’s it like in your case?”
- Don’t minimize or compare the loss. Avoid saying anything that starts with “At least …” or that highlights only the positive side. For example, “At least he’s no longer suffering” or “At least you're young and you can marry again.” Most people are well aware of all the things for which they are grateful, yet at the same time they are desperately sad because this person has died. When you point out what they haven't lost or concentrate on only positives, you are telling them that you don't understand at all. They feel you are telling them what they should feel—grateful—rather than acknowledging what they do feel—intensely mixed emotions.
When you approach your grieving clients in these ways, you give them something they may not be getting anywhere else. You let them know you care about them as more than just a number—you care about them as a person. You illustrate that you have some clue what they are going through, and you are willing to support them through it. It’s good for them, and it’s good for you at the same time.
Basically, supporting grieving clients is the fastest way to build trust and loyalty, and at the same time you can feel good about yourself because you are really helping someone. There’s no greater privilege than helping people heal and providing something they need. That’s why most people get into the financial services profession anyway—they want to help people. Grief education is a way to help both you and your client—it’s a win-win.
Amy Florian is the CEO of Corgenius, combining neuroscience and psychology to train financial professions in how to build strong relationships with clients through all the losses and transitions of life.