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How to Conquer a Client's Irrational Fears

Have you ever seriously worried about having to live on the streets?  Interestingly, that is one of the most common fears of a widow, even if she has more money than she’s ever had due to insurance proceeds.  She is afraid it will somehow disappear and she will become a bag lady.  In some cases, her situation is precarious enough that the fear is justified and you have to work carefully to preserve whatever funds she has.  In many cases, though, the fear is irrational. 

How do you deal with a client’s irrational fears?  Most advisors lay out the facts in logical fashion, often using statistics, charts, and graphs, hoping to demonstrate the groundless nature of the emotion.  They don't realize that logic is useless, because emotion and logic literally reside in different parts of the brain. Instead, resolving fears involves giving credence to them, helping her define and list them, and then working with her to imagine solutions. 

Allow me a parallel example. My son Steven threw fits at bedtime, because he was convinced the ghosts in the closet would come out at night and “get” him. I used all the logic at my disposal. We turned on the lights and examined every square inch of the closet without finding any ghosts. I sat with him for hours in the dark waiting in vain for ghosts to appear. I garnered the testimony of his older brothers. Nothing worked. 

Finally, instead of trying to talk him out of his belief, I acknowledged it as if it were true. “OK, Steven, since there are ghosts in the closet who could come out at night and get you, what would help you feel safe?” We brainstormed ideas until he decided he needed two things: a night light by his bed, and an adult to firmly close the closet door and tell the ghosts they had to stay put til morning. When I implemented his simple solutions, he peacefully drifted off to sleep. 

With a widow or with any other client with irrational fears, then, do not try to talk her out of being afraid, no matter how compelling the evidence of her safety. She will not feel heard or understood by you unless you acknowledge her fears and find ways to help her feel safe.   

This strategy may help: 

  1. Introduce the topic. “Everyone in your situations has fears and worries about their money. Some worry about losing all of it; some are afraid the kids won’t approve of how they manage it. You may have some fears, too.  Let’s see if we can get them out on the table upfront, so we can deal with them together.” 
  2. Get her talking freely. “Go ahead and brainstorm. Name all the money worries you have as they come into your head. They don’t have to be rational. Just start talking and we’ll see what comes out.” After she lists some fears, or if she has trouble thinking of any, elicit her deepest fears by asking, "What is the worst thing you can imagine happening to you financially right now?" 
  3. Take notes as she talks. Whenever she names a fear, nod your head or say something affirming like “Uh-huh” or “Yeah, I’ve heard that lots of times. You're not alone.”  
  4. Allow silence as she thinks. Telling her to take all the time she needs until she’s pretty sure everything is named. 
  5. Read the list back to her so she can clarify any point or add others. Assure her she can add to it at subsequent meetings if any additional fears surface later. 
  6. Prioritize. “Of all these things, which ones seem the most important or scary to you?”  Circle and number them. 
  7. Have her write down her top fears. University of Chicago research found that when we write down or write about our fears, it takes away some of their power. If you can, then, have her physically write down the fears that you circled so she can objectively see them in front of her. 
  8. Help her imagine solutions. “OK, since these are the things that worry you, what can we do together to keep you safe, and what do you need from me to feel safe?” Suggest financial strategies while also listening to and incorporating her input and discussing risks and benefits of each. In addition, look for non-financial input. Perhaps, for instance, she needs you to call her every week in order to feel safe. Continue the conversation until she agrees to strategies she believes will alleviate her fears. 
  9. Create a two-column table in a Word document. On one side, list her fears. On the other side, list what you are doing about them. Print it out on letterhead, keep a copy for your files, and give her a copy to keep with her financial papers. You can also email her a copy as an attachment in case she misplaces the hard copy.  
  10. Offer reassurance. Tell her that whenever the fears arise, day or night (and I can guarantee that sometimes it will be in the middle of the night), she can pull out this document, look at her fears, look at what you are doing together, and know that she is safe. Add that if she doesn't feel adequately reassured, she can come in to talk about it again until you find the strategies that work for her.   

When you follow this simple procedure, you provide something for a fearful client that few others ever do.  You hear her, take her fears seriously, and develop effective strategies for coping with them.  That is a sure way to build long-term trust and lifetime loyalty.

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. 

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