Navigating Client Fear

The words “investor” and “fear” seem joined at the hip.  One client expresses unconcern with the market reaching new highs while another sits on the sidelines unable to pull the “buy” trigger.  The first client is fearful of a pullback, correction, or bear market while the other is afraid she’s missed an upside opportunity that may not show up again for some time.  

When money is involved, clients feel and manifest any number of fear factors.  The challenge for the adviser is recognizing and naming these triggers while staying in the guiding, supportive, advisory role.  Fear factors, however, are often far deeper and more menacing than a 10% market correction or a spike in interest rates affecting bond prices.  The emotion you may hear on a call or sense in a face-to-face visit sounds and looks like market fear when in reality it may be an expression of deeper concerns.

Over a multi-year relationship, a client will manifest any number of fears about health, job, spouse, child, social status, you name it.  The prospect of death personally or with a loved affects a client’s ability to make wise decisions.  Likewise, chronic health issues or employment dis-ease can give rise to fear focused with you being the target.

How do you discover these pressure points and navigate through them?  Are their words or is their language clients may use to tip you off?  When you read uncharacteristic emotion or body language, what is the message?  And if you hear those words or see that behavior, how do you respond?

Discovering someone’s fear factors often starts with the question we learned in training.  “Can you tell me what keeps you up at night?”  You might ease into that question by first stating something like, “With the markets hitting new highs almost daily, we are seeing a greater possibility of a correction.  You may actually hear someone say the market ‘climbs a wall of worry’.  Can you tell me how you feel about that?”  What follows may be a direct response to your question or they could say, “Actually, that doesn’t bother me too much, but I will tell you what does keep me up at night.”  Then listen very carefully.

Another way to start the fear factor conversation is finding an opportunity to ask the client to name a time in the last 6 months when they felt uneasy about their future.  This approach could harken back to 2008-2009.  “Do you remember how you felt when the markets and our economy plummeted during the great recession of 2008-2009?”  Again, listen and give your clients space to talk.

When they do, what are words that demand a hearing?  A passel of words often has as its meaning a “loss of control”.  Successful people normally have a control gear in their makeup they have used – hopefully in appropriate ways – to better their lives and the lives of those they lead.  When a life-long decision-maker feels the loss of control, fear moves in.

Take note as well how they use the words “uncertainty,” “options,” “family,” “children” or “grandchildren.”  The tone of voice used or the level of energy in their faces, most notably the eyes, may communicate deep fears about how they perceive the future and why they believe it may not be as promising as once hoped.

Let me hasten to say that for some clients, success may trigger fear factors as well as uncertainty.  When human beings reach lofty heights of professional or financial success, they often fear the future, asking themselves, “Now what?”  Think not that fear factors only come into play in times of stress or loss, helplessness or deficit.  Some of the most fearful people I have known have been the most successful.

So what do you say?  How do you respond?  As you have listened and asked a few follow-up questions or shared information about your perspective on their concerns, you may need to say they have good reason to be concerned.  But don’t stop there.  You role is to help them not get bogged down and immobilized by fear.  How do you pull that off?

First, acknowledge whatever fears they may have.  All of us deeply want others to acknowledge how we feel.  Acknowledgment gives the soul a pat on the back, the heart a gentle touch, and the will permission to express feelings.  What may be the biggest relational mistake advisors make is this failure to convey, “I have heard and value every word and feeling you are sharing.”  Resist the temptation to jump to a response or a quick “fix-it” one-liner.

Most of all, offer them not so much an antidote for their fear as a roadmap out of it.  Know your story so well you can naturally relate a time in your life when you faced such fear factors.  What steps did you take to address them?  Few insights communicate like sharing our own journey.

Second, you might consider reframing the fears they mention in order to help them see where they are in another way.  If loss of control is an issue, ask them to share with you the things in life over which have control.  In the same way, speaking to attitudes, relationships, a hobby, or their faith may be a way to refocus the present as prelude to stepping into the future and a better place.

Listening for and knowing your clients fears and your commitment to helping them navigate through such challenges is not a “one and done” exercise.  Did I say “fear?”  Do not be afraid to listen for words and sense feelings that have uncertainty, confusion, dread, and hesitation written on them.  Attune to such a message from another will be key to unlocking what could be a defining conversation in a client relationship.

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