CommInsure Roundtable: Guidance Through Grief – Part 1

Riskinfo joined with CommInsure, Phil Kewin from the AFA and Amy Florian from Corgenius to conduct a recent Industry Round Table to consider the grief process and associated issues from the point of view of the adviser, the claimant and the life company.

Table of contents (Click these links to move directly to those topics)

Part 1

  1. Letting Your Client Grieve
  2. Different Experiences of Grief
  3. The Empathetic Adviser
  4. Developing Empathy
  5. Be Involved

Panelists (L – R)

While grief is often associated with death, it can also occur as a result of expected and unexpected changes in life, illness, financial stress and retirement, and the discussion examined how advisers and insurers add value for their clients, their family and loved ones when they most need help.

Read on to find out what your fellow advisers and other industry stakeholders had to say about these issues.

Letting Your Client GrieveBack to top

Grief, and how to deal with it, is not the usual topic of conversation for a financial adviser but for those providing life insurance advice it should not be unexpected, either. Yet, many people, including advisers, inadvertently shut down these conversations before they even begin by making the simple gesture of offering tissues to someone who is crying.

Amy Florian, Chief Executive of Corgenuis – a US based firm that teaches financial professionals how to support clients during major transitions – recommends that advisers reassess this approach and consider what this action communicates to clients who have come seeking comfort and help.

“When someone is grieving and the first thing you do is offer tissues, then that person knows you can’t handle the tears. The message they are receiving is ‘Stop it. Dry your tears. You are making me uncomfortable.’ Not every client is going to see it that way but too many do see it that way to risk it,” Florian said.

In addition, Florian added, when you hand a box of tissues to the client, they have to take it or it would be awkward, and this simple act takes them out of control of their own situation. “Grieving people already feel terribly out of control so anything you can do to keep them in control is a good thing. Instead, make tissues part of your office décor and have a box wherever clients might be. Then if the tears well up you just nod at your box and say, ‘You can use our tissues if you like’.”

Grieving people already feel terribly out of control so anything you can do to keep them in control is a good thing

This issue of control is very important for grieving clients. They seek assistance about their next steps and are looking for someone to guide them, instead of telling them what they should be doing, feeling and thinking at that particular time. “So many people around grieving clients tell them what they should do, and should think, and should feel, and whether they should clean out the closet, whether they should take off the ring, whether they should date,” Florian said.

“I always say don’t let anybody ‘should’ all over you. Those well-meaning intentions largely come from people who have never been taught, and who think their job is to cheer someone up and get them to put it behind them and move on,” she added.

Florian told the panel that advisers need to recognise the grief of their clients, but to also let clients heal in their own time and to position themselves as the person they can turn to when others are telling them what to do. This is particularly important if there is some form of insurance benefit provided, sparking a second wave of ‘shoulds’, such as ‘This is how you should invest that’ or ‘This is the person you should speak with’.

“Financial advisers can prepare clients for this and tell them ‘You’re going to have a lot of people trying to ‘should’ all over you’. They’re going to tell you what to do with your money, and they’re going to tell you what to do with your life. But don’t listen to them. Trust your own instincts and do what you are ready to do when you’re ready to do it. Along the way, if they give you an idea for your money that seems to make sense, bring them in, and let’s talk about it. I’ll be your independent advocate because right now you’re grieving and you’re not thinking as clearly as you normally would.  Let’s talk it over to see if this is the best thing to do, and if it’s the best thing to do, is it the best thing to do right now or is it better to wait?” Florian said.

Different Experiences of GriefBack to top

Florian said that many people will consider discussions around grief suitable for when someone is diagnosed with a terminal illness or passes away but they apply in many different stages of life.

CommInsure’s Head of Life Distribution, Olivia Sarah-Le Lacheur, sees these conversations as part of a broader conversation that is taking shape within the financial advice sector where clients are seen to be transitioning from one life stage to another on a regular basis. Sarah-Le Lacheur points to new parents having their first child and moving away from their previous ‘carefree life’ into something more settled as a good example of the transitions many advice clients make each year.

If you have clients in an ongoing advice relationship, then they will be moving through stages all the time and they will be leaving something behind at each stage. For advisers, who are having this lifelong journey with their clients, thinking about the changes they’re going to go through will be an important part of their role,” she said.

Her colleague at CommInsure, Senior Manager Rehabilitation Services, Julie-Ann MacCormick, said these life stage transitions were a common part of her work. “Peoples’ career expectations can change dramatically where they’ve had an injury or an illness or their lifestyle is not what they thought it would be, and that’s something that advisers would be dealing with on a very regular basis.”

Does the way an adviser handle grief related to loss from death or sickness differ from the way they might handle grief related to changes in occupation or lifestyle? Not according to Florian, whose experience in this area shows that most grieving processes follow the same trajectory but the impact and longevity can vary.

“Grief is grief. Some forms of grief are more complicated, they’re deeper, they’re more long term, they’re more profound. The thing that triggers grief is a break in an attachment and that happens whenever you have to leave behind what you are comfortable with, familiar with, and attached to, and you need to go on and learn how to live without it. That loss might be of a person, a relationship, a role, a function or an ability, a dream, a physical possession, or anything to which you are attached. So you’ve got a grieving client in your office way more than you realise,” Florian said.

Kabel Financial Services, adviser, Jossel Ginsburg said it was important for advisers to remember the experience of grief doesn’t go away, even though the initial pain may decrease, and the attachment to what is lost can remain strong and cause further grief in the future. As a case in point he mentioned a client who lost his wife five years ago “…and he came through it reasonably well until he sold his house, and the grief returned five years later” triggered by saying ‘goodbye’ to the house they shared for many years.

“He phones me on Sunday mornings and we have a long chat and I’ve had to ask him who his psychologist is and I’ve even spoken with them. Yet it is ongoing, and I am worried about him, and I keep following up because the grief is a never-ending story,” Ginsburg said.

If you have clients in an ongoing advice relationship, then they will be moving through stages all the time and they will be leaving something behind at each stage

No matter the transition or life-changing experience, advisers can put clients at ease and support them by asking good questions, adapting those questions for the particular circumstance. One of Florian’s favourite questions to ask is: ‘What do you wish people knew about what you’re going through?’ This question applies whether someone has lost a partner, is diagnosed with a terminal illness, has a child with a disability, or is struggling with retirement.

David Reed, retirement adviser with The Retirement Advice Centre said he has built a business with these types of invitational questions and the answers usually have very little to do with money and more to do with the changes that have taken place in the lives of his clients. As part of developing his business proposition, David looked into the grief associated with retirement and found there are more suicides for men aged over 65 than there are among teenage boys.

“In Australia, you’ve got a 40 per cent chance of taking medication in the first year of retirement and much of this has do with time management, status and ego and the loss of those things when full-time work ends, and that throws our plans out in a financial sense too,” Reed said.

“All of these events and emotions are very interwoven and what they are going through is like someone who is rafting down a river. With an adviser they have got a guide who’s been around the next turn in the rapids many times before. That’s who they will feel comfortable with and we narrowed our niche to build a model that allows people to age and still know what’s coming around the corner each time,” he added.

The Empathetic AdviserBack to top

The idea of a niche business is not unfamiliar to many financial advisers, particularly those who have positioned themselves as a life insurance specialist. But is it possible to develop skills as a more empathetic and emotionally aware adviser? Or to return to an earlier idea put forward by Florian – can advisers share the tissues with their clients?

Both Ginsburg and Reed see the presence of an adviser during a difficult period for a client as a key function of their work. For Reed this means being aware of what’s going on but also giving space for clients to express themselves in their own time.

“I spent 10 years with the police. We delivered plenty of death messages and were in many situations that were uncomfortable. What I learnt, through that repetition, is to be very comfortable with silence. Be very present but be comfortable with that silence and make no judgements,” Reed said.

…be very comfortable with silence. Be very present but be comfortable with that silence…

For Ginsburg, the use of tissues is a shared experience with his clients. “I don’t generally offer tissues, I use them, because I become involved and feel that is a form of empathy. I have had clients who come in grieving and offer me tissues,” he said.

Florian also sees this type of involvement with grieving clients as vital. She is often asked by financial advisers if grieving with their clients may be considered unprofessional. She strongly disagrees and instead reminds advisers that showing they are also affected emotionally by the losses facing their clients can be a great comfort and support.

Yet despite a greater awareness of ‘soft skills’, Sarah-Le Lacheur believes developing empathy and compassion can be the hardest of the soft skills to learn and to put in place when required.

“Typically, in the financial advice space we talk about hard skills and soft skills and this type of soft skill is much harder to learn than the rules and regulations around retirement planning or insurance policy ownership, and we do a disservice when we ignore the building of a skill and capability like this. At the same time, there’s a gap in terms of what the industry expects of people and what is offered from an educational perspective when it comes to these skills,” Sarah-Le Lacheur said.

These skills are important across the entire client experience in life insurance, according to MacCormick and CommInsure colleague, Ciaran Curley who is Head of Claims Strategy at the insurer. MacCormick said her own approach to dealing with grieving clients has changed due to her own life experiences, including greater use of silence as mentioned by Reed, but there is a growing interest in how these skills can be learned in an academic and work environment.

“We moved our rehabilitation team to sit with the claims team so the claims managers are regularly hearing those conversations with health professionals, the doctors and the customers about how they are coping and their recovery every day, working through that process. Allowing the claims managers to hear those conversations has been really helpful because it is difficult to access formal training for these types of soft skills which can be more effectively learnt on the job,” MacCormick said.

Curley said these important skill sets are out there and CommInsure has been able to find them but does so by searching other industries. “When we recruit we often look for people who have worked in the public health sector as their previous experience helps them to empathise more, which in turn leads to a better relationship with the customer. Yet, what we still say to our claims managers when they’re having these difficult conversations is ‘don’t assume you have the answer’, which is recognition that these cases are not always easy to resolve,” Curley said.

Developing EmpathyBack to top

AFA Chief Executive, Phil Kewin, believes the development of academic skills before personal skills is something that also applies to financial advisers and may be creating a skills gap in those who are entering the industry. He said many people either in the advice sector or preparing to enter it are academically qualified “…but when they get to actually practise these type of skills, they realise they have just studied the technical information”.

“What they then have to consider is whether they have the soft skills to actually be able to relate to clients and all their different circumstances; whether it’s the happy times or the sad times. That is one of the biggest gaps we have in advice. You can be academically qualified but do you have those skills to be able to actually build a relationship with your clients and then deal with them at those crucial stages?” Kewin asked.

He believes many good advisers have well developed personal skills but the issue of dealing with grief, and how best to approach it with the right words and actions, takes these skills to another level. “You only get one chance to respond when someone tells you that they have lost a loved one and people’s impressions of insurance companies, or financial advisers, are formulated and based on that first experience,” Kewin said.

“If the first thing they hear is ‘Can you give me your policy number?’ that is not the best experience but if they come in contact with someone who knows how to deal with it, that is going to start the process as effectively as possible and offer the empathy the client needs at the same time as being able to do what needs to be done to get the claim processed,” he said.

Fortunately, these empathetic skills can be learnt and further developed by all advisers, according to Florian, who believes both men and women can develop skills around compassion and care even if, as individuals, they start at different levels.

You only get one chance to respond when someone tells you that they have lost a loved one…

“Some people are born with a bigger ‘empathy gene’ but no matter where they start, everybody can raise the bar if they know what to say and what to do –  as long as they’re taught how to do that,” Florian said.

“When it comes to women and men there are some physiological differences in the brain that result in a slightly different style of grieving. Men, typically, have an ‘instrumental’ style of grieving which experiences grief more in their head than their heart. They focus on details, facts, and statistics and they want to take action to get through their grief. Women tend to grieve as ‘intuitive’ grievers experiencing it more in their heart than their head. They focus on the big picture and the emotions and want to talk to others to get through their grief,” Florian said.

While these are ‘typical’ reactions, Florian added that people, including advisers, fall within a continuum of those two styles and very few people are at one extreme or the other and that “…biology and physiology are not destiny”.

Be InvolvedBack to top

“The best thing is to recognize where you may be in that continuum and bring your own skills to bear. Your client may associate with your style more than someone else’s style, but the more you know about how to convey empathy, given what you’re comfortable with, then the better able you are to walk your clients through it,” Florian said.

“If you’re not naturally very empathetic, then get a colleague who is and work as a team when somebody is going through something difficult.  It isn’t so much based on man and woman, it’s a question of who this client connects to and who can they relate to the best,” she added.

For Curley and Sarah-Le Lacheur, the adviser involvement is the key issue when dealing with grief and the life insurance claims process, and in their experience too many advisers are not part of those conversations because they are afraid they may get it wrong.

“The best outcome for the customer is achieved when the adviser is holding their hand, supporting and advocating for them. The adviser has the longstanding relationship with the customer, there’s a level of trust that exists and the adviser can aid the communication process, for example helping to explain the rationale around why something is actually required by the insurer,” Curley said.

For advisers then the question, according to Sarah-Le Lacheur, is what view do you have about your role in the claims process and how do you view the support that you can provide when a client is grieving and going through a tough time?

“If you are naturally drawn to it, you’ve probably naturally got some skills. If you’re not, it’s probably because there’s a high degree of fear around missing something, not saying the right thing at the right time, and not understanding what role there is to play once you’ve dealt with the technical matters,” Sarah-Le Lacheur said.

“This is the moment where everything comes together with insurance and I would love to see every adviser involved in every claim. Not so much for the part that gets the claim accepted and paid but because people will still need the call every six months from their adviser to check in and ask ‘How are you feeling?’ and ‘How can I help you in your situation?’.

Continue on to Part 2…