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Advisors: How to Handle Emotional Conversations

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Let’s say you’ve recruited, hired and trained a couple of Gen Y advisors, and now you’re ready to let your younger hires take meetings by themselves. They have the training and technical knowledge, and can explain complex theories with ease.

But a client’s big financial needs often come alongside major life shifts — marriage and new children and grandchildren, but also death, divorce and medical needs. Are your advisors prepared to handle tough, emotional conversations? Have you trained them to do so?

The topic came home to me a couple of years ago, after my grandmother died. It was just weeks after my parents had immigrated to the U.S.; she still lived in England, however, and an unexpected stroke killed her suddenly. Within days, my family and I headed to England for her funeral.

As it turned out, she had planned her own service and chosen the pastor to lead it. He was a childhood friend of mine, and knew my grandmother well. Although he was young, his training had prepared him for hard conversations with people who are grieving.

He didn’t simply express his condolences and maintain an awkward silence. He recalled stories about my grandmother when she was at her best — challenging him on religious theory, checking that he was reading books to advance his knowledge and assisting him in some of his leadership duties at the church. We laughed together as he told these stories and we added a few of our own.
By the time I left, I felt not only my own pain but also joy that she had made such an impact on others.


What if an advisor in your office faced that type of situation?

Perhaps a newish client will set up a meeting because his newborn son has been diagnosed with a medical condition that will take a lifetime of costly care. Or a grieving widow comes in to discuss steps to take following her husband’s passing.

Your younger advisors may have less life experience that will help them understand the clients’ needs. Will they hold up under that pressure?

You want to make sure clients remember your advisors as the professionals who aided them in their time of need. Be sure you educate and train your advisors, and understand what level of emotional intelligence your staff members have.

Examine your advisors’ everyday behavior:

  • Do they change their style of communication depending on the subject matter? Knowing when to talk and when to listen can make a huge impact during an emotional conversation.
  • Do they ask for clarification on important topics that they have just been informed of? This behavior affirms that the speaker has been heard.
  • Are they able to ascertain if a particular subject matter makes someone uncomfortable? By noticing this, they can change topics or perhaps inquire about the discomfort.


Where advisors fall short, training can help. Use an outside consultant or one of your own staff to set up role-playing exercises with a client in need. Either video-record the session for later discussions, or sit in on the session to provide support and help your advisors improve.

Amy Florian, CEO of Corgenius and an expert in thanatology, trains professionals in dealing with clients who are grieving — covering such topics as what to say at funerals and why handing a crying client a tissue is the wrong thing to do. I’ve seen her present at a couple of NAPFA conferences; I still talk about the sessions.

Among her recommendations:

  • Stop talking. This moment has nothing to do with you, and the recent event may be very raw in your client’s life. Ask them about it. Ask them what they felt as it went on, and how they feel now — whether it is days, months or years after the event. You may be surprised at the grief a widow feels even years after the passing of her husband. But she can’t tell you if you don’t let her.
  • Expect grief in surprising places. When a client loses a job, for instance, you may encounter a grieving period — or when a child goes away to college, or gets married. The way you conduct a conversation and support your client will either reinforce a relationship or weaken it.
  • Stay focused on the client. Florian also offers one word of caution, particularly for younger advisors: Using personal stories to sympathize with a grieving client can backfire. Grief is a very personal matter, and everyone handles and survives it differently. By trying to show you know how a client feels, you might (unintentionally) insult them. It’s better to focus on your client’s feelings.


Situations can vary, of course. Don’t discount the impact that extended family members can have, even those who live on different continents. If your young advisor finds out about a client’s loss, have them arrange a meeting with the client — not with an agenda, but as a time to have a meaningful conversation and deepen a relationship. Among the questions the advisor may ask: What is your fondest memory of your relative? How does his passing make you feel? What did he teach you?

These are not natural conversations to have and they rarely come naturally. They require training and practice. These situations are hard for any advisor to go through. But as clients get older, they may become more frequent — and it is these situations that will define the type of advisor you are to your clients.

In order to set your team apart, don’t just become proficient at facing the initial grief. Send a card or flowers at the anniversary of a client’s loss. Show clients that you care enough not only to be with them in their initial grief, but also as they remember the people who shaped their life. 

Dave Grant, a Financial Planning columnist, is founder of Finance for Teachers, a planning firm, and Fee Only Consulting, in Cary, Ill. He is also the founder of NAPFA Genesis, a networking group for young, fee-only planners. Follow him on Twitter at @davegrant82.

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