Support customers with “Who am I now?”

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    Grief and loss are almost always present in our lives. In my previous two articles for WealthManagement.com, You learned about relationship loss and intrapsychic loss. Now let’s move on to another type of grieving change that clients experience throughout their lives: role loss.

    Your own role is your usual “place” in a friendship network, a family, a workplace or another social construct. We are very attached to our roles, especially when they become part of our self-identity. When they change, we mourn. Some examples:

    • A natural caregiver must become a caregiver. Caregivers often take pride in looking after other people while not requiring much care themselves. It can be humiliating and difficult to accept limitations and ask for or accept help.
    • A widowed or divorced customer no longer belongs to a married couple. They often feel like a third wheel or fifth wheel. How do they play cards or go dancing without a partner? Married friends are unsure how to behave around them and can even play matchmaking to help them return to a sense of normality and “fit”.
    • A breadwinner is released. This can only be seen as a financial loss, but the loss of a job is devastating in many ways. An essential part of their self-identity may have been anchored in their professional success or in their perception as indispensable for the company. They may feel like they have failed in their role of caring for the family and may even question their self-esteem as a person.
    • During COVID-19, customers became tutors for their children. The lessons and parental supervision were particularly time-consuming and intensive for those with younger children who were unable to log in, read instructions, or interact with the teacher personally as usual. Some parents even gave up their jobs to look after the family. Even so, they often felt inadequate, overwhelmed and angry about the deficits they had perceived in the learning and social development of their children.

    Like many types of grief, a loss of role can be triggered during positive life events. For example:

    • A graduate leaves school and enters professional life. This can be learned from clients’ children or from a middle-aged client who has returned to college. Regardless of this, the course has its own rhythm and purpose and conveys a concrete feeling of working towards something. Once this goal is achieved it can be confusing, especially if the school days were full-time and the person’s entire life changes.
    • A couple has a baby and has a childless life. Most couples look forward to having a child with great anticipation. However, once the child arrives, there can be a considerable amount of grief. If your friends aren’t parents yet, they may feel out of place or like their friends don’t understand. They often grieve over the lack of sleep or the way this little person is taking over their lives. You can resent planning so far in advance even for simple things like dining for two. While everyone around the new parent anticipates unbridled joy, this is often actually a time of deeply mixed feelings.
    • An employee is promoted to a new role. As exciting as the extra money and prestige is, the employee may no longer feel confident that they are doing this job. Expectations and responsibilities are different, they are likely to report to a new boss, they may move to another office and they lose the simple day-to-day interaction with previous colleagues. Everything is different and uncertain, and the level of stress is generally high.
    • A long-standing employee is retiring. Many newly retired customers are thrilled not to have to work, but also mourn what they have left behind. They lose their title and prestige, purpose in life, normal routine including reason to get out of bed in the morning, regular cognitive stimulation, daily interactions with coworkers, and more. Research shows that men who retire (more than women) tend to drink more, watch more TV, have less social interactions, sit more, and are at higher risk of illness.

    These types of changes can create an emotional “both-and” state in which a client feels joy about some aspects of transition and sadness about others. This doesn’t apply to every person, of course, but it’s something to look out for as clients get used to new roles.

    So what are you doing to best support them? Your biggest job is to acknowledge their experiences and hear their story. For example, in the case of a pensioner, you can ask yourself the following questions:

    • What do you miss most about your job or work?
    • How often do you still have contact with colleagues who you liked?
    • What is it like when people ask you what you are doing and you answer, “Well, I … used to…but now I’m retired ”?
    • What gets you out of bed in the morning when you’re not going to work?
    • Is it now easier or more difficult to get a good level of physical activity?
    • What do you find most satisfying about your new role in life and what is the greatest challenge about it?
    • How are family dynamics different now that you are retired?

    During the conversation, keep asking open-ended questions to aid the customer process and help you understand their experience so you can better serve them.

    For other types of role loss, the principles remain the same: think about all the implications of changing roles, both positive and negative, and use similar questions that invite the client to share the diverse and complex emotions they are experiencing.

    Whenever you bring up this type of loss and the grief that comes with it, you stand out because few do. Clients know you understand them and serve them in ways other advisors don’t, which is always good!

    Amy Florian is the CEO of Corgenius, combining neuroscience and psychology to train financial professionals how to build strong relationships with clients through all of life’s losses and transitions.

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