The Playbook for When Life Changes

Susan Bradley, CFP®, CeFT®, Founder of the Sudden Money Institute
August 2, 2017

It’s no longer a secret that it’s the personal side of money that drives decision-making. And it’s also no longer a secret that, as Heraclitus is rumored to have said about life back in about 500 BC, change is the only constant.

All of your clients will experience life transition after life transition. And yet, here we are, in an industry that always has and always will have change deeply embedded in it, with no substantial education about the human dynamics of change and transition in the curricula of even our most highly regarded designations.


Hypothetical Composite of Many Conversations

Financial Advisor: A few years ago, one of my oldest clients—I cold-called her husband back in the day—lost her husband to cancer after a years-long battle with it. All of the financial stuff is done and we made a plan together based on everything she said was important to her and all had been going well. But now, out of the blue, she’s changing her mind about what she wants, like every . . . other . . . day.

Me: That’s not at all uncommon. The loss of a spouse is a major life transition that can take years to adapt to. She’s building a new identity or allowing one to emerge, and that takes time and attention. What are you going to do next with her? Do you have a plan for situations like this? Do you have tools and a process for when life changes?

Financial Advisor: (crickets)


It’s not just widows who behave in what appear to be unexpected ways, and it’s certainly not just women. To know transitions is to know that things don’t just come “out of the blue”. They come out of a context and a process for which there is a navigational guide.

I’m sure your business is filled with people either anticipating or experiencing divorce, retirement, inheritance, or the sale of a business. Each stage of transition has its own challenges and creates an environment for internal struggles that can wreak havoc on decision-making, confidence, clarity of mind, physical and mental energy, and relationships with others.

For this and the next three articles, I’ll be outlining the playbook for times when life suddenly changes, and the client (or you!) are thrust into uncertainty. I will use the Four Stages of Transition as our guide.

The Four Stages of Transition (based on William Bridges’ model that included all but Anticipation) are:

  1. Anticipation
  2. Ending
  3. Passage
  4. New Normal

Anticipation simply means that the client has become aware of an upcoming, major life event. Now, there can also be anticipation of an event that does not occur—perhaps the sale of a business or a professional sports contract. Either way, what’s important is that the awareness of the event starts a chain reaction. Attention and perception shift and the event becomes alive for the client. All of its possible meanings and outcomes swirl around in the mind of the client. Expectations surface. Behavior changes. Relationships change. All aspects of well-being can be affected.

When we talk about Anticipation as a stage of transition, we are essentially talking about preparing for an event that hasn’t occurred yet. We might not even have a clear estimated time of arrival. It might never happen at all. But it doesn’t matter during Anticipation, because the narrative about the event has already begun in the mind and the life of the individual. And if you wait until the event has occurred to plan for it, you give away this influential interval of time that has the power to positively transform the client’s relationship to their transition and the money that comes with it.

Someone in Anticipation is moving through the idea of change (financial and otherwise) and that can be destabilizing. In precisely what areas and to what degree depends on a variety of factors, including the presence and quality of their support system and the expertise of the professionals who guide them.

Areas that are frequently compromised during Anticipation are:

  • values
  • the ability to think clearly
  • decision-making and prioritizing
  • the ability to function well in relationships
  • the ability to create or maintain healthy boundaries
  • the general ability to handle oneself socially

So what’s the playbook for Anticipation? Is there anything you can do to set the stage for the best outcome, and what would the best outcome even look like? Fortunately, there’s plenty you can do, beginning of course with establishing a safe space for whatever your client is experiencing, and normalizing their feelings. The invisible thread that connects the elements of the above list is the primary work of Anticipation: identifying and managing expectations. And there can be a lot of them depending on how much of a shared experience Anticipation has become for the people around the client. So much goes unsaid during Anticipation, and so much is assumed. That doesn’t serve anyone and can lead to disappointment, regrettable decisions, and the destruction of relationships. And all before a dime has been received. 

What does the best outcome look like? Making certain the client is as prepared as possible for the actual event to occur is the goal. (The event occurs during Ending, which I will address in the next article). Instrumental in reaching that goal is helping the client develop as healthy a mindset as possible about the event as well as the transition process. They probably also have some work to do regarding establishing boundaries and communicating about those boundaries.

When you have a playbook for working with clients and co-creating outcomes that are fulfilling during the most chaotic times, you have a playbook for any time. And that playbook can be shared with your clients as you work together, thereby giving them the skills and experience to better handle their next major life event.


Read "The Playbook for When Life Changes" in Financial Advisor magazine

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