The Calling of the Counselor in Counseling Families – Part 2 of 3

Jun 14, 2022 | Diversity, Equity & Inclusivity, General Estate Planning, Podcasts

“The Calling of the Counselor in Counseling Families” is a three-part special:

  • Overview: An introduction and overview to lecture. – posted May 31, 2022
  • Part 1:  “Coaching Up” – posted June 7, 2022
  • Part 2:  Nourishing Family Values – posted June 14, 2022 (this podcast)
  • Part 3:  Challenges of the Counselor – scheduled to post June 21, 2022

“The Calling of the Counselor in Counseling Families,” that’s the subject of today’s ACTEC Trust and Estate Talk.

This is Steve Akers, ACTEC Fellow from Dallas, Texas. Welcome to Part Two of three in ACTEC’s Annual Trachtman Lecture series, featuring Past President Ronald D. Aucutt. Part one of the lecture focused on the special calling we have in counseling families and the lecture concluded with how family values are transferred between generations, and how families nourish legacies by spending time together, shedding tears together, sharing joys, serving others, and sustaining values together. Today, Ron will expand on those pillars that create legacies.


Spending Time Together

Spending time together. Interacting. Communicating. This is crucial. This is existential. Family meetings is a major topic in many of the resources listed in the handout. It was one of my focuses 11 years ago – 12 of the 22 pages in the ACTEC Law Journal version were devoted to the subjects of Communication and Information Flow.  Family meetings, frequency dependent on the geographic dispersion of the family and other attributes of the family. Ages for admitting the younger generations to be determined by the family; inclusion of spouses usually a good idea. Inclusion of individual family members’ lawyers; their lawyers, is usually not a good idea. A non-technical agenda often beginning with a tribute to an older family member or remembrance of a deceased family member. Encouragement of discussion through the use of questions. And appropriate rules of civility, such as encouraging the subjective first person (“I see it differently” or “I believe”) rather than the second person (“You’re wrong” or worse), and so forth.

Meetings – it’s a good thing all right. Look at us! Some family meetings by their family nature may have been affected less by two years of social distancing. But many extended families have also been cautious of meetings, not to mention cautious of travel. Technology has enabled more contact without travel hasn’t it, a positive display of resilience over the last two years. We’re all delighted with how technology, employed by our resourceful officers and staff, over the last two years – and even in this transitional meeting to permit many of our colleagues to join virtually. But I believe that our fellowship and collegiality as Fellows of this College are immeasurably strengthened when we gather in person.

Even more so in a family, virtual meetings should always be understood as a distant second-place replacement for the in-person meeting. Or maybe the chance for updates in-between meeting in person. But meeting in person is crucial with eye contact, gestures, smiles frowns, other body language, even the sound of children playing in the background. And the same thing, except maybe for the part about children playing, can be said about the benefit of face-to-face meetings between the counselor and the client to clarify their values and their concerns and their needs and to explain recommendations.

The COVID pandemic has also been accompanied also by a sharpening of the blades and barbs of political and public discourse. No matter what any person’s views are, there almost certainly will be different views that person thinks are at least goofy, if not outrageous. When these clashes arise within the family, it makes things particularly tense. And there seems to be no good news about this. For example, where there is no diversity of political views, a family meeting can just become a hot pot for bringing the views they share to a boiling point, magnifying the polarization and the belligerence, regardless (as I’ve said) of what point of view is to start. In a few minutes I’ll focus more on what a family that nourishes its values can give back to society. But sharper polarization certainly is not it.

Shedding Tears Together

The second point is shedding tears together. I don’t know – maybe I just covered that in talking about politics! But, no, probably not. What I mean is mourning with each other and comforting each other, whether the occasion is a rejection, or a setback, an illness, a death, or something else. Making that kind of communication natural, regular (whenever needed), and as personal as possible. You know the rules:  don’t write if you can call, don’t call if you can visit; that’s the point.

Sharing Joys Together

Parallel to shedding tears together is the third point of sharing joys together. Celebrating and rejoicing with each other. Obviously celebration is a lot easier than mourning and comforting, right? Yes, it should be and it often is. But in my experience, sometimes mourning together is easier to do than rejoicing together. How so? Well, it is natural to say, “I’m sorry for your loss; what can I do to help?” – and even mean it. But “I’m happy about your gain, your success, your achievement, your recognition”? Not so fast. What if that was a promotion I wanted? What if I think I worked harder? Or “I always wanted that picture; why did you get it?” Now I know you are thinking to yourselves: “We’re talking really small stuff here. A picture? That’s just household effects. That’s never a problem in a family, is it?” Is it? OK, I see I don’t need to explain. Of course, it is. Sometimes it can be the biggest problem.

Serving Others Together

The fourth point, serving others together. Just as a lawyer is not really fulfilled without clients, and what makes an attorney-client relationship most fulfilling is what I’ve called the calling of the counselor, a family is most fulfilled when its enthusiasm for family values and its devotion to those family values spills over to others, when it has an opportunity to shine a light into the world, giving back. ACTEC itself embraces and models that, doesn’t it?  The family culture of giving back, sharing, and making the world better (or at least a part of the world) it provides an encouragement – an accountability, if you will – for keeping that family culture strong. And likewise, seeing someone else helped by a family’s values can provide the best affirmation that those family values really are, well, valuable.

I’ll say more about giving back to the community in a few minutes too.

Sustaining Values Together

The fifth point, sustaining values together. And that of course is the point. Family values is the subject here. And in a sense it is just the sum of all the other points. When quality time is spent together in genuine interaction and communication, when both tears and joys are shared together, and when the family is able to leave the imprint of its values on others, then those values are not just ratified, they are incredibly strengthened. There’s something about doing that beats just talking.

Now, 11 years after my first venture into this topic, I still think it is important that counselors know how to guide families in these steps and encourage families to follow. If anything, I feel more strongly than ever in light of the affirmation of this ACTEC programming that I mentioned, and in the face of even more need for living a legacy of values presented by the COVID pandemic, greater coarseness in public dialogue, greater awareness of injustice in the world.

If not now, when? And if not us, who? Coach ’em up!

Challenges of the Counselor

Still, whatever the level of resolve, there are challenges that a client or a counselor might encounter with making these things happen. How can the counselor help? I’m going to address ten challenges or questions that might come up. But what I am about to say are just illustrations. I’m not meaning to suggest that I am going to answer every question or tell you how to handle every challenge or fix every problem. Some of these 10 are beyond the scope of this lecture. And even if I could do that, and I can’t, solutions will be different for each client anyway. Just like much of what we do, it is not one-size-fits-all. I just want these illustrations to show that with a little determination – and with the resources listed on the handout, that were written by people who really do know what they are talking about – it’s possible to come up with solutions, or at least potential solutions to try.

Challenge 1: Presumption

The first of these ten challenges is something I call “presumption.”

Legacy is important. But is my “leaving a legacy” all about me? So people will think better of me? Many who write on this subject, as I did 11 years ago, urge that every major family meeting, I’m quoting now from my ACTEC Law Journal version, “feature some tribute to an older family member – or remembrance of a deceased family member. Use photos, videos, writings, memorabilia, or, if nothing else is available, just good stories. This will remind participants of what they have in common. There should be candor about where wealth came from, as well as where it goes.”

Stories are great. “That is what Grandpa did!” “That is who our great-grandmother was!” Their contributions had value. What is an ACTEC presentation without a segment on valuation, right? In fact, we should be encouraging our older generation clients to write down their stories as transferable to facilitate this type of remembrance. But we must avoid what J.R.R. Tolkien described in “The Lord of the Rings” when he wrote this, “Kings made tombs more splendid than houses of the living and counted old names in the rolls of their descent dearer than the names of sons.” We do value those who have gone before us, as I value my grandparents. But the value I see in my grandparents should include what they modeled for me to pass on to my grandchildren. That, I think, is what we mean when we say their legacy lives on. Not splendid tombs, but a loving family.

So, the conversation with the family should not be limited to “you have been a success if your grandchildren love you.” Not even “you have been a success if you love your grandchildren.” It should include “you have been a success if your grandchildren love their grandchildren.” That’s what you are building – a legacy of hereditary unselfishness. It is fine for your descendants to honor you, but, from your perspective, it’s not about you.

Challenge 2: Selfishness and Difficulty Feeling Love

But that can lead to another, even more fundamental, challenge. What if the client really can’t celebrate others’ joys because the client really is selfish? What if the client has trouble, for example, loving or empathizing or putting others (such as children) first? I imagine that we have all had clients who just didn’t love their children, or grandchildren, or trust them, or care about them. At least not all of them. Or all of them the same. Maybe they really love the ones who are just like them – who share their ambitions, or talents, or styles, or politics – but not the others. We can say to a client, “Start loving all your children.” Or we can make it a little less authoritative, “It would be better if you loved all your children.” But that seldom works. We can ask, “Remember how your parents – or your grandparents – loved you?” But that might not work either – for one thing they might not have the fond memories that approach implies.

Here is a better approach: Simply ask what they would do, how they would act, what they would say, or what they would write, or what decisions they would make – if they did love and did empathize and did put others first, if they did love their children. Ask what they would want if they were, say, one of the children. Not what they would want in a selfish way, but what would make them grateful. Then, whatever they come up with, whatever they figure out, whatever the answer is, challenge them to just do it, whether or not they feel like it, just do it. Coach ’em up! It can be amazing how that can work, not just to produce the outcome that love would have produced if they had loved, but sometimes  actually to work in reverse and begin to build the very feeling of love the client claimed, or appeared, not to have.

And, by the way, this can work for the counselor as well as the client. Counselors who really are having a hard time liking one of their clients can just do what they imagine liking the client would prompt them to do. Just do it. And sometimes that can work, not just for the issue at hand, but as a model for clients as well.

Challenge 3: Difficulty Giving Up Control

A third challenge is that even if the client really wants to help the family out, some clients have trouble giving up control. Have you noticed that? That makes sense though. Successful people want control. Many, if not most, successful entrepreneurs and even investors achieved their success by being in control.  It is unnatural for them to give up that control. And for many successful people, especially successful businesspeople, what keeps them awake at night are two dreadful fears about transferring that control to younger generations. The one they tell you: “What if they don’t do as well as I have done?” And the one they don’t tell you: “What if they do better?”

This is a tough one. We can pester the client with slogans like “Failing to prepare is preparing to fail” sometimes attributed to Benjamin Franklin (although I haven’t found any proof of that either). But a better approach might be to take small steps. Remember that they don’t want to give up control because they are in control, so we dare not act like we are in control. We just make suggestions and let the decision be their idea. And one suggestion is: what smaller thing can they give up control of, see how it works? What part of the business, what portion of the portfolio, or even what part of the estate as an early outright lifetime gift?

What’s the worst that could happen? The younger generation could fail. They could mess it up. They could lose it. (Remember I’m talking about just a modest portion here, not the whole business, not the whole portfolio, not the whole estate.) But failure permits correction. The correction process builds character and commitment to the family’s values system. As that renowned philosopher Yoda said in “The Last Jedi,” “The greatest teacher failure is.” The children (for example) have been made better stewards of control and better stewards of the parents’ transferable values system. And now that the parents’ commitment to stewardship has been passed on to the next generation, we might be able to talk about passing more significant control, because we all know that at some point it has to happen, doesn’t it? All anybody ever has is a life estate.

Does this approach end up rewarding failure? No – if anything it rewards risk-taking, if we’re careful to tell the difference. And because many successful clients become successful by taking risks, they should understand that – maybe the ninth or tenth time you tell them!

This concludes podcast Part 2 of 3 in our ACTEC Trust and Estate Talk special, featuring the 2022 Trachtman Lecture. The next podcast will wrap up the “The Calling of the Counselor in Counseling Families” lecture. In that podcast, Ron Aucutt will share his insight regarding the main challenges a trust and estate counselor faces.


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