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7 steps to guiding clients through conflict

Liz DeCarlo

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Find common ground and maintain your neutrality throughout the process.

A stepmother suing her late spouse’s daughter over estate issues. Longtime business partners who no longer agree on the future of the business. Siblings who haven’t spoken in years. Any time you combine money and personal history, there’s potential for explosive interactions. But there’s often a way to head off heated conflict, or to resolve conflict even in the midst of emotional reactions.

For more than 25 years, Barbara A. Culver, CLU, CFP, has been having what she refers to as “conversations beyond the balance sheet” with clients. Whether it’s a dispute between business partners on the sale of a business, a married couple who can’t agree on the estate plan to provide for their children, or a family’s adult children fighting over who inherits the antique grandfather clock, conflict often boils down to a difference in values.

“We have questionnaires designed specifically to clarify values,” said Culver, a 29-year MDRT member from Cincinnati, Ohio. “When we use those, what we find is there can be differences, but there are always certain things in common. We start the conversation around that, as opposed to, ‘Here’s what we disagree about.’

When we can start with this place of agreement, as opposed to disagreement, then new possibilities emerge in solutions and what we create together.

— Barbara Culver

“When we can start with this place of agreement, as opposed to disagreement, then new possibilities emerge in solutions and what we create together,” she said.

Finding that alignment can head off issues down the road. “In trust and estate litigation, brother suing sister, nobody likes to see it devolve into the worst situations,” said David Allen, a trust and estate attorney in Chicago, Illinois, who often works with advisors. “I tell clients: ‘To the extent you can plan and spend money upfront, you’re going to save your family a lot of money and heartache.”

Here are steps to deal with these types of situations.

1. Set aside your fear of conflict and dive in.

“A lot of time, advisors get too passive — it’s human nature. They’re uncomfortable with conflict and they don’t want to rock the boat,” said Brian Watson, CFP, a 14-year MDRT member from Gainesville, Florida. “But when you avoid conflict, you erode trust. When your clients have issues, the worst thing you can do is say, ‘I’m not going to go there.’

“It doesn’t matter how sophisticated a client is, they need our help talking though this,” Watson said. “If we’re passive, they’ll think, ‘I have a problem and you’re not helping me, so I’m going to look elsewhere.’

“Once you do this a few times, you realize the fear of conflict is in our own minds,” Watson said. “You can talk about almost anything with the right approach.”

In trust and estate litigation, brother suing sister, nobody likes to see it devolve into the worst situations.

— David Allen

2. Start conversations early.

When Watson conducts reviews with clients, he’ll ask what’s going on in their life and if any changes have occurred since the last review. “We understand the life stages, so we can anticipate some of the issues,” he said. “For example, mom and dad are 75, maybe slipping a little bit mentally, and haven’t talked to their kids about finances.”

Often, parents don’t want to or know how to talk to their children about finances, future healthcare issues and the status of their estate after their death. Or a senior business partner thinking about exiting the business isn’t comfortable bringing up the next steps with their junior partner.

“As an advisor, we want to be very proactive about giving our clients the opportunity to talk about these areas that are going to be inevitable well before a need presents itself,” Culver said. “People are able to make their best decisions when they have time before there’s a crisis, when we are not in the midst of having to make hasty, instant, difficult decisions because of an accident or health diagnosis.”

If you create alignment, then everybody starts to feel on the same page and on the same side of the table.

— Brian Watson

How do you start this conversation? Culver often uses the following:

“We all know families that, due to a health reason, accident or divorce, find themselves in difficult situations. Some of these are predictable. For instance, if we live a nice long time, most of us will have a need for long-term care or home healthcare that we are not able to provide for ourselves. Ultimately, we also know that we’re going to pass on. We want to make sure that no matter what life has in store for us, we’ve thoughtfully and proactively thought about how we want to be prepared, what we want to have happen and what we don’t want to have happen when these situations present themselves.”          

3. Bring in all involved.

Culver starts by meeting first with the decision-makers, and then bringing everyone else into the conversation who will have a role in the future. “We’ll ask those decision-makers, ‘In your lifetime, when there have been difficult decisions to make, what are the things that allowed you to make your very best decisions?’” Culver said. “They usually say, ‘We had resources. We had time. We could do research or use an expert.’”

Culver will point out that, conversely, they don’t make good decisions when they don’t have time or are pushed into a conversation. She’ll then note that they’ve brought up their children in previous conversations and often assigned them roles, such as power of attorney for healthcare or finances, or as an advocate for a parent in declining health.

“We want your children to be just as equipped to make the best decisions they can when they’re thrust into these decision-making roles,” Culver tells clients. “We do that by giving them all the ingredients we’ve just said work: time, resources and the ability to talk to experts.

“I’ll also say to parents, “Your kids want to be there for you. They don’t want to disappoint you when you really need them,’” Culver said. “‘Why don’t we give them the opportunity to do that as well as they can, to be prepared and have a voice in this process now, so they can ask questions, express concerns and fears, so when the time comes that you need them, they’re as ready as they possibly can be.”      

4. Find common ground.

Watson often starts by having individual discussions with all involved so he understands the perspective of what each person wants to see happen. Then he looks for what they all have in common.

“If a client and his brother are in business, we try to find where there is alignment, so when you start the conversation, they lower their guard,” Watson said. “If you create alignment, then everybody starts to feel on the same page and on the same side of the table.”

Tom Green, who specializes in mediation and conflict resolution as president of The Discussables Group, recommends assuring all parties involved that you have seen others work through comparable situations, and there are ways to navigate the conflict that include fairness, multiple options, and a way to move forward and get on with life.

One way to create the framework for positive discussions, Green said, is to start with the following: “I would like to think that we are sitting at this table, not one side versus the other, as in the courtroom, but rather together, working in good faith to find resolution. Our job is to get everything about the situation on the table and then together determine what is a fair range of resolution.”

5. Maintain your role as advisor and neutral party.

“It’s difficult for even the most professional advisor to be neutral,” Green said. “State your role: ‘My role is to ask questions and arrive at the facts that everyone needs to reach an acceptable agreement.’ Emphasize your commitment to all parties by saying, ‘The outcome of this is so important to me that I will work tirelessly at being neutral. I will balance the interests of all parties.’”

The human side of advising must focus on the dignity of all parties involved. “Acknowledging someone’s anger, sadness, loss or hurt feelings demonstrates the advisor is capable of managing through these emotions without taking sides,” Green said.

6. Head off and defuse emotions.

“You have to get people to refocus if it moves in an emotional direction,” Watson said. “Say something like, ‘The goal here today is to a, b, c.’ If the goal is to communicate information, that’s what we focus on. If the goal is to help two business partners facilitate a sale, we make sure we understand both sides’ feelings before the meeting and focus on the alignment.”

“Try to de-escalate the emotional side of it,” Allen said. “I’m involved in litigation right now where I represent a daughter who is a trustee, and the surviving spouse is the second spouse and sued the estate. My client wanted to bring up the marital home during the mediation and my response was, ‘That’s going to escalate things. Stick to the dollar amounts.’”

Green also advocates using facts as a way to avoid conflict. “Facts are hard to argue against,” he said. “Describe the loss, the mistake or the consequences of proceeding incorrectly.”

7. Bring in outside help.

“If I know it’s going to be a hot meeting going in, I’ll often bring in a psychologist,” Culver said. “If we have old wounds and other issues, I don’t pretend to have the skill set to work at that level, so the psychologist or intergenerational specialist will step up and help facilitate that part of the conversation. It leaves us to do what we’re trained to do best.”

Starting on common ground

When starting a meeting that could become contentious, Tom Green’s advice is to begin by confirming what all parties can agree to.

  • We all want this to be fair.
  • We want this resolved by the end of the (hour, day, week or month).
  • We want what’s best for (the kids, the family, the business).
  • We will proceed without blaming others or finding fault.
  • We will not bring up the past.

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