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Creating connection in an online world

These are strange times indeed. Almost overnight, the COVID-19 pandemic forced us out of our offices, classrooms, shopping malls, and gyms and into the safety of our own homes. As a financial advisor—and as a human being—this new reality has me longing for the ‘old days’ when it was easy to have real, meaningful conversations and connections with my clients, friends, and family. In quarantine, where online video platforms like Zoom and FaceTime have become our answer for every sort of face-to-face interaction, life feels anything but normal. 

Zoom and FaceTime have become the solutions of choice in a world where it’s safer to stay home. Extended families are hosting weekly Zoom reunions. I use FaceTime to talk to my grandchildren. Teachers conduct Zoom classes. At-home workers attend Zoom meetings. Actors and musicians give live Zoom performances (the Sondheim 90th Birthday Celebration will make any day in quarantine brighter!). Even financial advisors (that’s me) have turned to Zoom to meet with clients.

Zoom is a wonderful but imperfect solution. I struggle with its limitations every day, and those limitations create stress. The challenge is to maintain strong, connected relationships in an environment that distorts eye contact, body language, tone of voice, and the kinetically-connected rhythm of interaction between people in the same room. When what’s left is a slightly out-of-sync talking head, our intentions and meanings can be easily lost—even when we’re saying all the right things.

Clearly, virtual communication introduces new challenges. Especially when my clients are relying on me to be their trusted guide through market volatility. During in-person meetings, we can connect and communicate using verbal and non-verbal cues such as body language and silence. We share documents. We look at the same screen. (My superpower of being able to write upside down across my desk helps too!) These days, I perceive that my messages—and my empathy—are getting lost in translation.

  • Melinda has always been apprehensive about investing. When we’ve talked through her fears in person, she’s been able to see why the risk/reward trade-off from stocks investing is vital to her long-term financial security, and she has left my office feeling more confident. She called last week after yet another market dip filled with more fear than ever. I worry that our FaceTime chat didn’t help put her at ease.
  • Beth is retiring next year and is well prepared for financial independence, but she can’t seem to see past the most dire predictions to focus on the reality of what lies ahead. It’s my own Cassandra Complex. When she asks if she should “go to cash” and wait this out, I say no. What she hears is “blah-blah-blah.”
  • Laurie is retired, and she has plenty of savings to support her lifestyle and a good, long life. When the CARES Act suspended Required Minimum Distributions (RMDs) for the calendar year, we chatted on FaceTime and agreed to a halt IRA distributions because they are not “required,” so why pay the tax? But now she questioning that decision and unclear about her next steps. Face-to-face, we’ve developed a rhythm of communication. But on Zoom, we’re not connecting facts and emotion.

Communication and trust are the foundation for any relationship, and they are especially vital for clients and their advisors. We are being forced to learn to use new tools—like Zoom, Skype, and GoToMeeting—and because our skills and experience with these are limited, it can be difficult to communicate effectively and to build and maintain that critical ingredient of trust. Miscommunication isn’t universal (I’m thrilled every time I receive a note or a call thanking me for harvesting some tax losses or recommending a mortgage refi), but it’s certainly true for some. At the same time, we’re facing a pandemic and economic disruption, and many are reacting with fear and anxiety. At this critical convergence of change and fear, we are deprived of the tools we’ve skillfully deployed to share thoughts and facts and co-create a plan. The situation has me desperately seeking better ways to connect in the weeks and months ahead.

I’m not alone with my ‘Zoom Gloom.’ This article on ‘Zoom fatigue’ from National Geographic explains why virtual interactions are so hard on our brains—and why they are utterly exhausting. I know I need to be more skillful with virtual tools to navigate a changing environment. How can I create a sense of safety and work with you to talk about your fears, anxieties, hopes, dreams, and plans? How can I guide you toward informed, rational decisions based on facts, not fear? 

I don’t have a fully formed answer, but here are a few of the approaches I’m exploring to help ease the path ahead:

  1. Shorter, more frequent meetings.
    Face-to-face planning meetings are often long—an hour or two—which gives us plenty of time to connect and then dig deeply into your concerns and uncover new opportunities. With ‘Zoom fatigue’ in mind, I’m focusing on shorter, targeted meetings, and on meeting as frequently as needed to cover what matters to you.
  2. More silence.
    On video, the need to ‘fill the space’ with constant conversation is real. But that doesn’t leave time for deep thought and reflection—both of which are important for wise decision-making. Giving each other permission to take the time to think, even when silence feels uncomfortable, can help us make better, smarter choices. If I’m more quiet than usual, it’s because I’m listening more closely.
  3. Deeper meeting prep.
     Virtual interactions force us to focus on multiple things at once, which is challenging. As the National Geographic article says, “Think of how hard it would be to cook and read at the same time.” To make each meeting as effective as possible, I’ll be asking you to do some deeper meeting prep. By asking you to explore key questions before we jump online, we can set the stage for better collaboration when we’re Zooming.

I’m hoping these strategies will help, but I am continuously honing new skills for this new reality. If you have any suggestions, I’m all ears. We’re all learning, and we’re all in this together. None of us knows how long the quarantine will continue, and it’s possible that another wave of the virus will push us back home even after we think it’s finally over. For now, we must keep calm and carry on. With shared intention and commitment, we will make our online connections as meaningful as possible. After all, your hopes and dreams depend on it!