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Compassionate Communication: Serving Clients Better by Acknowledging Their Grief

I answered the phone. “Hi. My name is Anna. My dad died last month and I’m working through his estate. What’s your tax ID number?”

Thirty minutes later, I knew that Anna’s dad was a school principal who knelt down when he talked to kindergarteners. I knew that she and her family went on Caribbean cruises every time his cancer went into remission. I knew about a problem that The Columbus Foundation could solve, and that might lead to a new business relationship.

And sure, business development is great. But that’s not why I asked Anna about her dad. Taking time to respond to grief helps me do my job better and serve people better. Other professionals can use the same approach to strengthen client relationships and improve service.

What is grief? Who is grieving?

“Grief occurs when there’s a break in attachment,” says Amy Florian of Corgenius, who spoke to The Columbus Foundation’s Professional Council in December 2020. She notes that grief can come from many causes: divorce; a business failure; a good friend moving away; acquiring a disability. While it seems counterintuitive, even positive transitions like retirement, marriage, or the birth of a child can trigger a sense of loss.

Even if we appreciate the heaviness of grief, it’s easy to miss the signs that someone is struggling until we expand our awareness of what causes “a break in attachment.”

Why acknowledge grief?

Most people are uncomfortable talking about grief and loss. So why should professional advisors do it? Ms. Florian cites a few reasons.

First, it’s the human thing to do. Clients are people, and they deserve to be treated as whole individuals.

Second, it helps us get things done. If a client’s emotional state is consuming their energy, the client isn’t ready to make decisions. After talking about their emotions, the client will often be in a clearer frame of mind.

Third, it’s good for business. Ms. Florian notes that 70 percent of widows switch financial advisors after their spouse dies. If an advisor treats a client with support and humanity through a challenging phase of life, imagine how appreciative and loyal that client will feel.

Ms. Florian emphasizes that we should never use compassion to take advantage of vulnerable people. Professional advisors need to critically assess their motivations before using these techniques.

Building new habits

When a person tells us about a loss or a struggle, most of us mutter “That’s awful” or “I’m so sorry” and listen while the person says, “It’s ok, I’m doing all right.” Then, we move on.

Responding well requires us to think and practice on our own – before we’re in the room with someone who’s struggling. Ms. Florian suggests these tips.

Practice – out loud!

In the United States, the dominant cultural norms don’t give us much practice engaging vulnerability. It’s no surprise that most of us aren’t good at it. So, we need to practice.

Exercise: Think about the times you’ve encountered grieving clients in the past. How did you respond? How did that feel? Practice saying the phrases and questions below. Think about how a client might respond to them, and how you might follow up with another question or comment. Keep experimenting with phrases until you find words that feel natural for you.

Keep the focus on them

When someone reveals their grief, many of us try to empathize by sharing a similar experience. This can make the other person feel like we’re not listening, or like they need to comfort us.

Exercise: Visualize one of your clients telling you about a type of loss that you’ve experienced, like the death of a loved one. Practice phrases or questions that allow the client to keep sharing about their own situation. In your practice, briefly acknowledge that you’ve experienced a similar situation, and follow your statement with a question like, “How is it different for you?” or “What is it like for you?”

Inspired by Ms. Florian and Corgenius, the tools below can get us started.

Phrases to avoid:

  • “I know how you feel.” We don’t know – even if we experienced a similar loss.
  • “I can’t imagine.” Right, we can’t imagine what they’re feeling because we aren’t in their shoes. Instead of this phrase, ask questions like, “What has life been like for you over the last few days/weeks/months?”
  • Anything that tells the client what they “should” feel or do. Everyone experiences grief uniquely.

Phrases to remember:

  • “What do you wish people would ask you, or let you talk about?” The client might mention their grief, and they might talk about something totally different. Whatever they say, listen.
  • “The last time we met, you mentioned… Is that still the case, or has something changed?” A client’s grief, and sometimes the situation that causes it, will persist. By checking in over a period of months or years, we acknowledge that we don’t expect a client to be “back to normal”.
  • “How are you today?” Adding “today” invites the person to talk about their current state, without needing to summarize their overall experience.

Grief remains a part of our lives, through our own struggles or through the people we encounter. For professional advisors, engaging clients holistically – especially about the difficult aspects of life – can improve both our business practice and the lives of the people we serve.

About Corgenius

With exceptional grace, good-natured humor, and rock-solid science, Corgenius teaches financial service professionals how to support their clients in times of grief, loss, and transition.

About The Columbus Foundation

The Columbus Foundation serves nearly 3,000 individuals, families, and businesses that have created unique funds and planned gifts to make a difference in the lives of others through the most effective philanthropy possible. The Columbus Foundation is Your Trusted Philanthropic Advisor® and is one of the top ten largest community foundations in the country.

May 26, 2021



Christine Donovan is an Associate Director for Donor Services at The Columbus Foundation.