In “Best Communication Practices in Volatile Times,” Steve Sanduski is wise to recommend using market uncertainty to acquire new clients. These are times that can trigger a client’s deep fears, erode their confidence in themselves and their finances, and lead to a drop in their capacity to think long term. And yes, times of high fear and anxiety are also times when people might leave their advisors. We’re not at the collective anxiety level of 2008, but that experience helped us at the Sudden Money Institute see the human response to prolonged anxiety as distinct client behavior. We named it money shock.

Money shock can happen at any time; it is an individual reaction to a change in circumstances. It might be a liquidity event, an inheritance or new responsibilities resulting from widowhood or divorce. With the help of a trauma therapist, we were able to design a protocol we called financial triage, to address the challenges with individual clients. Financial triage is for people whose fears and concerns are so heightened that they’re actually getting in the way of their own well-being. Their health might be at risk, their relationships might be at risk or they might be on the verge of a financial crisis.

What Is Financial Triage?
Financial triage is a structured conversation with 5 steps that need to happen sequentially. It’s for times when the anxiety level is high, and well-being is at risk, usually because of the potential for fear-based decisions or indecision.

1. The Client Tells Their Story
First, give the client time and space to tell the story of how they’re feeling and what they’re thinking. This helps you understand what they think is at stake. Let them explain what they think it means to them and their business, health and family. This is more about feelings than facts at this point, so asking open-ended questions and listening deeply to the responses is paramount. This is not the time to take notes or to interrupt. When the client is struggling with their story and pauses, looking for words, resist the temptation to fill in their blanks or prompt them. Allow them to say what they need to say at their own pace.

2. Normalize
Once the full story is told, whatever their experience is, it needs to be normalized. Your job isn’t to agree with anything, but simply to assure them that what they are experiencing is okay. They frequently feel like they’re “crazy,” or that they shouldn’t be feeling the way they do, but no feeling is ever crazy or bad. Feelings, like thoughts, are just things to be considered; they are objects of our attention. Normalizing stabilizes clients and can position them to begin to recover higher cognitive functioning.

3. Name
In writing, list the concerns from the client’s story. The list doesn’t have to be in any particular order; you’ll get to that next. For now, simply say “Let’s make a list of what’s going on.” The most important guidance here is to use the words they used rather than paraphrasing. This type of naming acknowledges you’ve heard them. If they say they’re “flipping out” or “pissed off,” use those words.

4. Organize
Once the client’s concerns are named and listed, you can move on to sorting and organizing them. Organizing occurs in two parts: the level of the threat to well-being, and the ability to control the situation.

First, we would go down the list one by one to determine if the concern is an immediate, possible or unlikely threat. Next, we go over the list again to establish if the threat can be controlled or managed, and if not, we just monitor it. 

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