Why Me Caring About You Makes the Medicine Go Down a Little Better

medicine

Take a bunch and call me in the morning.

“Be tough minded but tenderhearted.”
― H. Jackson Brown Jr.

I recently went to the eye doctor. It’d been about twelve years since I had my LASIK surgery, and I hadn’t been since we moved to Texas. I wanted to find a local optometrist with whom I could establish a relationship and make sure that everything was still functioning the way it should.

When I had my surgery, my eyesight improved dramatically. I had 20/12 vision. I knew that my vision wasn’t quite as good as it had been after the surgery, but I felt like it was still quite acceptable. As it turns out, I was right on both counts; I still have 20/17 vision. I also got a test for macular degeneration, and passed that with flying colors. I was nowhere near the readings which might be a cause for concern.

So, with all of that information in hand, I expected to be given the clean bill of health, a thank you very much, and instructions to come back at some future interval.

Instead, the optometrist told me that I needed to get a prescription for eyeglasses and tried to sell me on supplements to prevent macular degeneration.

“Wait,” I said. “My vision is better than normal and I have no problems seeing things, right?”

“Yes,” he said.

“So, why are you telling me I need to buy prescription eyeglasses?”

To which he answered with hemming and hawing and verbal tap dancing about how I didn’t really need the glasses, but it might be a good idea to have them.

We had a similar conversation about the supplements. I already take an omega oil stack daily. He had said that omegas were the most important supplement for prevention of macular degeneration. Yet, he was trying to get me to buy more supplements.

When quizzed about this, he again entered into verbal tap dance mode.

My hackles were up. I came in to get an eye exam, and upon being told that my eyes were in great shape, expected to pay for the exam and leave. Instead, I got bombarded by what I perceived as a sales pitch trying to get me to buy a bunch of crap I didn’t need.

I totally understand paying for an eye exam. This person had a medical degree and a dozen years of experience in checking out people’s orbs. He had to have an office and the machine which enables him to say “1 or 2?” “3 or 4?” and make the eye chart clearer or more opaque. I’m willing to pay for that expertise, specialization, and machinery that I have neither the time, desire, or capital to go acquire on my own. It’s the purpose of money, after all – a medium to exchange my value for his value.

What got me up in arms was that he tried to, as far as I was concerned, make our exchange into an even more economic exchange by convincing me to buy stuff I either definitely didn’t need or probably didn’t need.

It soured the relationship. I’ll never go back.

It turns out that money and compassion don’t really mix, which is why I thought that this optometrist’s demeanor was such a turnoff. Research from Brandeis’s Andrew Molinsky, along with researchers from Harvard and Wharton business schools demonstrates how intermingling economic and money thoughts with situations where compassion is required destroys the compassion and makes the experience worse for the people who were expecting compassion.

There are numerous situations where this can happen. When bosses have to announce layoffs, when doctors have to give bad news, or when trying to show bad stories to elicit donations to charity, the invocation of money is a surefire way to remove compassion from the equation. The research hypothesizes that the people who have to deliver the bad news are trying to remove themselves emotionally from the situation to prevent themselves from overloaded by negative feelings and pain from the people to whom they have to deliver the bad news.

The plan backfires. People who receive bad news in an uncompassionate and unemotional way are more likely to sue for malpractice or sue for wrongful termination than those who receive the news from compassionate sources.

The reaction is understandable. Think of people who receive news about layoffs from an uncompassionate source. The immediate reaction is going to be that the boss and the company are thinking about profits over people, and, therefore, that the termination was unjust. Money gets in the way. If the boss, on the other hand, is compassionate, then the people who are laid off understand that he or she feels pain and feels their pain. The blow, while harsh, is softened.

If I’m your financial planner, there’s a pretty decent probability that I’m going to have to deliver some bad news, whether it’s telling you that you need to rein in your lifestyle now or that you’re going to have to delay retirement or won’t get to have the lifestyle you envision in retirement, the sad truth is that most people are faced with constraints and tradeoffs and will have to make some difficult choices about what’s truly important to them.


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If financial planning were merely ancillary towards getting you to buy a bunch of front loaded mutual funds or towards getting you to let me manage your money for 1% of your overall assets per year, then I’d basically tell you to suck it down and give me the money because, after all, I know what’s best for you. For those people, financial planning is a loss leader, meaning they lose money on providing financial plans, and, therefore, they want to put in a minimal amount of work to get to what they perceive as the “good stuff,” which is getting your money put into their products.

In that case, you’d get the brush off treatment, said monotonically, with an unfelt “I’m sorry” thrown in right before the but which tells you what you should be doing – giving them more money to manage or to buy front-loaded mutual funds or unfit variable annuities or indexed universal life insurance or whatever junk makes them the most money.

You’d smell it, too. Just like I felt dirty when the optometrist kept telling me that, at 20/17 vision, I needed eyeglasses. And, even if the core of the advice was right (not the part about hamstringing your nest egg by throwing a bunch of money at them unnecessarily), you’d feel miffed, and you’d probably blow the advice off.

That’s why it matters that the person whom you choose to serve you actually cares about you and your family!

It’s all in the delivery.

As I’ve previously discussed, I have the good fortune to work only with people whom I genuinely like. If I care, then I’m going to be more motivated to work hard and to help. If I don’t care, then I’m going to mail it in, send in a 98% pre-filled in template with blanks filled in (hopefully correctly, as opposed to “Dear [FIRSTNAME]”). I am a financial planner because that’s what I want to do, not because it’s what I have to do (as an aside, HR expert Lance Haun agrees that, if you can get to that position, you’ll be much happier in your work). So, fortunately for me, I get to choose to forge partnerships and relationships with my clients.

Because I get that choice, I’m going to care. I might deal up some harsh medicine sometimes (although, admittedly surprisingly, there are a fair number of “well done, carry on!” assessments in there as well), but I’m going to care. I’ve been through tough times financially too. I know what it’s like to scrape by with a mountain of debt. I know what it’s like to wonder if you’re going to be able to make payroll at the end of the month and hoping that the client who looks like they’re heading towards the rapids wrote you a check which won’t bounce. I know what it’s like to build up grandiose business ideas and not have them work out the way you planned.

I came out the other side. You can too. It’ll help to hear that message from someone who has some compassion for you. It may sound touchy-feely and fluffy bunny, but it is really important in making sure that you actually act on what you need to do to make the changes you need to in order to improve your chances of reaching your goals.

Hearing that message from an automaton, someone who acts like the boss in Office Space, or someone who is eyeing your nest egg as a way to pad his sales numbers isn’t going to help you get there.

How important is it for you to hear messages from someone who really cares about you? Have you ever received bad news from someone who had a terrible bedside manner? Tell us about your experiences in the comments below!

About Jason Hull, CFP®

Jason Hull, CFP®, is the Chief Technology officer of myFinancialAnswers, an online comprehensive financial planning service.

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