Challenging Conversations

Last week we talked about FUD. We continue to muddle our way as best we can through these uncertain times. The challenges haven’t abated. Things are getting worse on both the health and economic fronts. Spending anytime consuming news or online comments, FUD seems to be only increasing.

In fall 2008 to spring 2009, stock markets around the world nose dived. The levels of fear in the markets reached historic highs. Things were ugly for many then. I recall visiting a stockbroker at their office in the midst of the mess. Their offices were empty. It was eerily quiet. What was normally a vibrant, buzzing environment, was still and dark. It wasn’t because staff had been instructed to stay home. People had become deeply entrenched in the negative sentiment. Much hope had been lost. Stockbrokers stayed at home trying to avoid any connection to what was going on. They didn’t know how to have conversations with clients who were in deep and dire financial straits. I asked my friend why he was at the office. He was quick to offer that he didn’t see any other choice. He felt it was his responsibility to listen to his clients even if he couldn’t fix the problems. He felt he needed to try to offer whatever guidance he could in the circumstances. He knew his clients personally. Many were friends or even family. He couldn’t think of not answering the phone or being available to service in some small way. His business grew through these troubled times. Though, it’s important to note, he wasn’t trying to make it grow. He wasn’t soliciting anything in any way. He was simply trying to be available and help in whatever small way he could his current customers. If they wanted to leave because they blamed him, he would help make the transition smooth. If he could offer consolation or guidance, he would. He leaned in when others left.

Picking up the phone as an insurance broker today isn’t much fun either. The industry in many parts of the country has been facing a hard or hardening market. The past week’s events are quickly resulting in a collapsing economy where things have gotten much worse for most. At the best of times, people aren’t jumping up and down with joy as they work through the insurance purchasing process. It is often viewed as a have to, sort of like getting a dentist check up. Yes, we do it. No, we don’t look forward to it. Now, people who are both fearful of health or economic circumstance are going to be even less enthusiastic about buying insurance. There is no way to sugar coat this fact. Many of you will be experiencing first hand the lack of “enthusiasm” customers now have towards the insurance purchase. It’s not fun being on the receiving end of these calls.

People are struggling. Their internal alarm bells are ringing constantly. In the past week, have you been involved in a conversation that didn’t lead with where we now find ourselves? Our attention is being monopolized by either the health scare or economic turmoil.

We have two train tracks of terror barreling down our brains. Depending on who you’re listening to and how you’re feeling one may take priority over the other at any given time. One is the fear of COVID 19 impacting those near and dear to us as well as ourselves. The other is the economy. We’ll leave the arguing about whether one is more important than the other to the talking heads. Both are real. Both are here. Neither are going anywhere anytime soon.

Regardless which track is making us restless, the end result is, unfortunately, similar. Fear fosters anxiety and/or anger which, in turn, closes our thinking. We are emotionally driven animals. The parts of our brain that breed our brilliance are relatively new. Our prefrontal cortex (PFC) is where most of our thinking occurs. We haven’t had this part of our brain for very long. The older parts of our brain which are sometimes called our Reptilian or Lizard brain are the larger drivers of our feelings (and behaviors). The limbic system consists of our Amygdala. The Amygdala is our alarm bell. It is hyper-sensitive to threat.

In our pre-historic days, the Amygdala served us well and kept us aware of and safe from predators. Thanks to it working well in our ancestors, we have each made it to where we are. In the past as our Amygdala’s served us, the stress response was a good one. Our Amygdala stood by and alerted us when necessary. It is designed to give us a quick and effective response to an immediate physical threat. However, for social and psychological stressors, we’re not as well wired. Unfortunately, when we’re scared and need our ability to carefully think more than ever, our mind is the first to shut down. As Judson Brewer in The Craving Mind writes, “Unfortunately, the part of our brain best able to consciously regulate behavior, the prefrontal cortex, is the first to go offline when we get stressed.” Brian Germain in his book Transcending Fear notes, “When we become afraid, we are reversing evolution and reverting to the mental capacity of an early hominid.”

We’re overwhelmed with thinking of little else other than how this crisis is or will potentially affect us and our loved ones. We’re scared for our physical well-being. We may hear the voices of well meaning public health leaders and politicians trying to calmly guide us and tell us that we don’t need to worry or rush to the grocery store, yet we then see the pictures our media presents of the bare shelves at the grocery stores. We feel anything but relaxed. Images of empty shelves scream at us that if we don’t act now we’ll be left without. We’re worried about not just the virus, but whether we will be able to access the essential things we need. Piggyback on to these two major threats angst about whether we will be able to perform our job or keep our job as the economic activity completely collapses, our stress response is revving deep in the redline. Nicholas Kristof observes, “Research has shown that economic stress robs us of cognitive bandwidth. Worrying about bills, food or other problems, leaves less capacity to think ahead or to exert self-discipline. Threats castrate cognitive capacity.

Whatever is driving our fear, the result is similar. We’re scared and our ability to think well is reduced. This is happening for each of us. We feel this. As importantly, our customers feel this way. When they are reaching out to us, they may not be their best selves. In Transcending Fear, Germain writes, “Fear does not make me who I am, it makes me less of what I could be.”

Unfortunately, none of us have a magic wand to fix either our own circumstances nor those of others. Scared and desperate insureds are reaching out and seeking accommodation for payment obligations. Insureds whose businesses have had to close the doors to customers. Insureds who have already lost their own jobs. Insureds who are exposed to both threats. They either need to cancel certain coverages or seek help stretching out payment. If we haven’t already had this conversation with an insured, one of our colleagues likely has. None of these are pleasant. There are no easy answers to offer. It is likely that the scared customer may express their fear through anger or frustration. Pia Nilsson in Every Shot Must Have a Purpose writes, “Anger not only triggers hormones that create tension and anxiety in the body, but those hormones then shut down parts of the brain and lead us to make bad decisions.” They may be less than civil on the phone. We’re not excusing this behavior. We’re not condoning it. There’s little point in detailing a “zero tolerance” policy where certain customer conduct isn’t acceptable. We’re not trying to fix it either. Most importantly, there’s no point reciprocating and escalating an emotional conversation. This doesn’t help anyone. Any negative sentiment being expressed isn’t personal. It’s not directed at you. They’re not mad or frustrated with you. They are angry at their circumstances. Randy Paterson, in How to be Miserable, writes, “As the mood darkens, the natural tendency is to withdraw and self-protect.”

All we can try to do is empathize. We’re in the same boat. Since we’re all likely sharing similar fears and doubts stemming from uncertainty, we should be able to empathize and feel what others are feeling. We can’t fix it. We can just try to listen and commiserate. “I understand your frustrations.” “I share your frustrations.” “We’re all struggling in difficult circumstances.” “Please bear with me while I work to explore what options we may be able to offer to manage your request.” We’re trying to defuse any hostility and frustration by using verbal ju-jit-su. Then, can we try to redirect the conversation to something constructive? Being attuned to an understanding of the insured’s perspective is our best defense. It will help us both better manage serving the customer without allowing their fearful feelings be transmitted to us.