How to Effectively and Efficiently Interact with Grieving Clients

By Gary Glober

All interactions are combinations of facts and feelings. Because of client needs and economic realities, trust and estate lawyers often focus rapidly on the facts. But feelings, especially during grieving, can inhibit the client’s ability to hear and understand the lawyer’s recommendations.

Thus, trust and estate lawyers must attend to clients’ feelings before moving to the facts. Although counterintuitive, this approach actually saves time in the long run. L. Paul Hood Jr., in the 2004 ACTEC Journal, warns that prematurely directing the interaction to legal and tax issues could result in “bottom-line” ill effects such as client procrastination or litigation. At the very least, the lawyer risks the client choosing another advisor.

Using rapport-building skills and armed with insights into the signs and symptoms of grief, the lawyer can create a beneficial interaction. To do otherwise might be perceived as being insensitive and reduce the efficacy of the interaction. Fortunately, rapport-building skills are few in number and conceptually simple, and it’s never too late in ones career to learn and employ them.

Open-ended questions. During the early weeks and months, grieving individuals might find it difficult to respond to routine questions such as, “How are you?” Instead, after shaking hands and sitting, make an empathic statement such as, “I appreciate your coming. I imagine that these days have been difficult for you.” Attention to nonverbal details throughout the interview is important. For example, keep your eyes at the same level or just below those of the client and use more eye contact with the client than with files and notes. Avoid imposing mechanical barriers such as a large desk. Instead, consider interacting around a small round table or place yourself somewhat at a right angle to the client. Have a box of tissues nearby. After a pause, continue with an open-ended question such as, “How do you hope that I might be of assistance today?” or, “What would you like to talk about today?”

Then, because clients want their lawyers to really listen, avoid interrupting quickly to focus, for example, on “fact-finders” or educational aids such as graphic projections. While listening to the client, avoid thinking about the details involved in issues such as transfer of wealth, avoidance of taxes, or the establishment of property management mechanisms. If abruptly interrupted on a regular basis, the client rapidly assumes that the lawyer prefers fact-oriented questions and wants to avoid his or her feelings.

Listening skills.

  • Silence. Being quiet can be difficult given lawyers’ predisposition to move quickly to facts. Because nature abhors a vacuum, silence is a very powerful communication-stimulating skill.
  • Minimal verbal encouragers. Examples include “I see,” “Go on,” “What else?” and “Please tell me more.”
  • Follow-up questions. “What did that mean to you?” “What concerned you the most about that?”
  • Reflect/clarify. “Please tell me what you meant by ‘feeling in a fog.’” “I would like to hear a little more about the experience you mentioned of not being understood by your family.”
  • Explore feelings. “Tell me what went through your mind when I emphasized the need for a timely decision.”

If you sense inconsistencies between verbal and nonverbal behaviors, make an educated guess such as, “You say that you are coping well, but I get the impression that you are struggling.” Even if the guess is incorrect, the attempt shows clients that you are trying to further your understanding of their emotions. Often, clients will tell you what they are really feeling.

Barriers to effective listening.

  • Yes/no questions. For example, if you ask, “Do you have anything else that I should know today?” it would be easy for a grieving client to distractedly answer, “No.” Instead, you will obtain more useful information by asking, “What else do you want me to know today?”
  • Why questions. Asking “Why” seems to question a client’s motivation. Thus, instead of, “Why did you hesitate when I suggested that you incorporate this new approach into the planning?” say, “What reasons did you have in hesitating to incorporate this new approach?”
  • Trite or canned expressions. State-ments such as, “I understand how you must feel” increase the risk of the client’s saying or thinking, “How can you understand? Have you ever had a husband killed by a drunk driver?”
  • Professional jargon or legalese.
  • Premature advice. “How about seeing a grief counselor?”
  • False reassurance. “Don’t worry.” “I will take care of everything.”

Handling feelings. While listening, stay alert for the client’s verbal and nonverbal expressions of emotions. If feelings are not acknowledged empathically, the lawyer runs the risk that the client will keep repeating (“re-cue”) the emotions and be unable to interact effectively. The use of empathy demonstrates to the client that the lawyer really does understand and, thus, helps to get the interactions back on track by stopping the re-cue.

Empathy is a brief phrase that attempts to identify verbally the speaker’s emotions. One does not have to experience personally the patient’s feelings to be empathic. Lawyers are often concerned that being empathic will “open Pandora’s box.” Actually, empathy does the opposite by greatly increasing the likelihood that the client will feel heard and understood.

In addition, the life of the grieving client is full of potentially guilt- inducing “shoulds” and “what ifs.” If the bereaved expresses a “should” or a “what if,” employ an empathic educated guess, such as, “That must be very draining, always having to be strong,” or, “The idea of forgetting your wife must be depressing.”

Chunking and checking. When interacting with clients, lawyers tend to talk and talk and talk, especially when a lot of feelings are in the room. Unfortunately, the client usually is still thinking about the first few sentences and does not hear the rest. To be efficient, give information in small chunks with pauses to check for the client’s emotions and his or her understanding of the facts.

Personal awareness. The grieving client challenges the lawyer to stay focused. Although most of his or her communications are appropriate, occasionally the lawyer might experience sensations of anger, hopelessness, and sadness when talking with the client. What may be happening is that he or she is unconsciously mirroring the client’s feelings.

It’s equally important to be aware of the lawyer’s own “shoulds,” for example, “I should always remain professional—even though Jim is agonizing about the murder of his brother, I must control my emotions,” or, “Mary should be grieving more about her husband.”

Additional considerations. As you gain trust with the client, ask if he or she is currently under the care of a medical physician and is engaging in potentially rejuvenating activities such as regular exercise, meditation, yoga, and community activities.

Also, given the physical and emotional drain of interacting with grieving clients, please consider (1) sharing, from time to time, the challenges of professional life with trusted and insightful friends, family, and colleagues; (2) one-on-one coaching to continue learning and practicing, with feedback, communication skills tailored to your needs; and (3) regularly scheduled quiet time and exercise.

Finally, encourage your staff to express to you in private their feelings about the grieving clients with whom they interact. Use the same rapport-building skills with them as with your clients.

For More Information About the Real Property, Trust and Estate Law Section

- This article is an abridged and edited version of one that originally appeared on page 61 of Probate and Property, July/August 2008 (22:4).

- For more information or to obtain a copy of the periodical in which the full article appears, please call the ABA Service Center at 800/285-2221.

- Website:

- Periodicals: Probate & Property, bimonthly magazine; Real Property, Trust & Estate Law Journal, quarterly journal ; and the new, bimonthly RPTE e-Report.

- CLE and Other Educational Programs: Watch out for RPTE’s monthly CLE teleconferences; for more information, please visit our website. - Books and Other Recent Publications: From Handshake to Closing: The Role of the Commercial Real Estate Lawyer; Title Insurance: A Comprehensive Overview, 3d ed.; The Insured Stock Purchase Agreement, with sample forms, 2d ed.; An Estate Planner’s Guide to Qualified Retirement Plan Benefits, 4th ed.

Gary Glober, M.D., is a leadership and communication skill consultant based in Houston, Texas. He may be reached at

Copyright 2009

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