When Clients Change Their Mind

Susan Bradley, CFP®, CeFT®, Founder of the Sudden Money Institute
Financial Advisor
March 13, 2018

Drew’s Story

Recently both Drew’s parents were killed in an accident, leaving Drew with a sudden and life-changing inheritance. Engaged to be married soon, Drew finds that his feelings about what to do with the money keep changing. One day he favors putting it all into a joint account that he and his fiancée will both use. The next he’s convinced that the money should all be in his name. On yet another day, he considers giving his fiancée some portion of the funds, but he can’t make up his mind how much.

Rinse and repeat.

Drew’s financial advisor, witnessing Drew’s frequent changes of heart and direction, resists the urge to smack her forehead in frustration, but she advises Drew to just do nothing for now. He’s obviously not ready to make any firm decisions.

More To The Story

While Drew’s advisor is correct in her assessment that Drew isn’t ready to make important (especially irrevocable) decisions, there are some problems with her “prescription” for Drew to do nothing. Those problems become apparent when we consider the human elements of Drew’s story.

Drew is living a transition that includes dealing with the death of two parents and managing a significant inheritance, all while embarking on a new lifelong commitment. Like most of us, he has been socialized to come up with ready and resolute answers, then stick with them as a supposed show of strength and stability. And while Drew really isn’t sure what he should do, doing nothingseemingly flies in the face of that social construct. He’s struggling and waffling because he feels both self-imposed and outside pressure to do something—especially now that he has important new commitments to others.

The Truth About Shifting Positions

As financial transitionists, we know that Drew’s inconsistent behavior, like that often displayed by others experiencing their own life changes, is normal. Wavering, shifting positions and changing one’s mind are not character flaws. They are a part of the natural landscape of transition.

If anything, inconsistent behavior is an essential reminder that what the client needs most is to rest, pause and take his or her own time to “figure it out” (FIO). We owe it to our clients to normalize this FIO process for them, to understand their “wobbliness,” and to support them, while allowing them as long as it takes to find firmer ground—understanding that “as long as it takes” could well be more than a year.

The Difference Between Pausing And Doing Nothing

While Drew definitely should take a pause from decision-making, that rest period should be anything but a time of uncomfortably passive nothingness. An advisor focused on the human side of Drew’s transition will instead guide Drew as he works through a purposeful, structured process that gives him the space he needs to FIO, while encouraging him to use tools that will also be helpful with future transitions.

Once Drew realizes that this rest period is actually a mindful, active and meaningful time that will be helpful both short-term and long-term, he can take pride in his perspicacious choice to pause. 

Advisors Are Human Too

Michael Karwic is an experienced Certified Financial Planner and Chartered Retirement Planning Counselor. Also a Mastery Level Certified Financial Transitionist with the Sudden Money Institute, Karwic recently shared with other advisors that he still has to “check himself” sometimes when dealing with clients who say one thing one minute, and another the next. The temptation to respond with a frustrated “But you said…” can sometimes be powerful, Karwic admits, but he steels himself to resist. He knows that “But you said…” reactions only make a client feel misunderstood, pressured and defensive.

Like Karwic, we may have to remind ourselves that what the client needs most is someone who understands and responds in accordance with his or her very human experience of transition. We have to choose to “flip the switch” from judgmental comments (like “But last week you said you wanted to…”) to respectful, purposeful questions (like the examples below) that meaningfully engage the person in addressing what he or she is feeling and why.

• “Can you tell me how you’re feeling now?”

• “What feels different for you at this point?”

• “What do you think should happen next?”

By giving the client a necessary break from making any decisions that aren’t urgent, we make time to “go to the balcony” together to get a clearer, more comprehensive view of all the client’s options. 

Why Making Agreements Matters

Taking time to explore while “living with not knowing” is an integral part of transition, but clients should never be uncertain about what they can expect from their advisors. Working with clients to develop agreements (like the ones below) give us both clarity about how we will partner to bring about the most successful transition possible:

We agree that…

…sometimes things do and should change. This is more than okay—it is crucial to writing your next chapter!

…we will work together to FIO, however long that takes.

…this road from Point A to Point B may be winding and/or bumpy at times.

…we will use tools and processes (such as Decision Free Zone) helpful in determining what decisions must happen NOW and which ones can wait.

…we will revisit tools and processes as “where we are” changes.

…we will set benchmarks for decisions that require hard timelines.

…for decisions that can wait, we will pause or rest or spend time running “what-if” scenarios that provide the freedom to “back up and turn around.”

…this agreement will be an ongoing conversation, a living document that we will constantly reassess, rethinking, adjusting and adapting as needed.

Focusing on the human aspects of financial planning, recognizing the positive, vital side of uncertainty, and building our work together upon a clear, agreed-upon foundation empowers clients to work through transition successfully.

Susan Bradley, CFP, CeFT, is the founder of the Sudden Money Institute, which began 17 years ago as a community of practice seeking to better serve their financial planning clients by developing process and tools for the personal side of money and for clients going through transitions. This think tank created the Certified Financial Transitionist (CeFT) designation, and a division for training and certification called the Financial Transitionist Institute. Susan speaks frequently in the United States as well as internationally, and is the author of Sudden Money: Managing a Financial Windfall (Wiley 2000). Her TEDx talk, “Change Launches Your Next Chapter” can be found here.

Susan will be speaking on a panel and leading a workshop at FA magazine’s Invest In Women conference.

This post was originally published in Financial Advisor magazine here.


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