Consider this scenario: You meet with two clients, husband Bill and wife Ann, and discover that Ann is upset because their oldest son, Tom, and his wife, Kate, have stopped calling them since the birth of their first child. What's more, Kate told Bill and Ann that they are not welcome at Thanksgiving dinner. Ann, clearly disturbed by this hostility, tells you she wants to change her will, fund Tom's inheritance through a restrictive trust and give him less than her other son.

As their advisor, it would be easy to go along with Ann's request. After all, she's a paying client and expects you to follow her wishes. But blindly following instructions may not be for the best.

Although Ann and Bill asked you to help them draft financial documents, their motives are based more on emotion than economic analysis. You can serve them better by recognizing and encouraging them to deal with their underlying family issues. Of course, you're not a psychologist. So how can you help them with issues they might not be prepared to face — or even be fully aware of?

The first step is for you to identify the basic family dynamics and see how you inevitably change them by being present. A crucial question to ask yourself: Have your clients drawn you into their family melodrama, using you as a buffer to reduce their discomfort?

Using a third person as a buffer is a common coping strategy — so common that psychologists refer to it as triangulation. About 50 years ago, psychiatrist Murray Bowen focused on such family dynamics and developed what's called family systems theory.

TRIANGLES

One key concept in this theory is that family relationships can be so intense and uncomfortable, an individual will triangulate with a third person to deflect stress. Triangles are not good or bad; they just are. In fact, families — indeed any grouping of people — can have a number of overlapping triangles at the same time.

For example, your clients could triangulate with their son or daughter-in-law and you. Their conversations with you may reduce their anxiety and help them to manage conflict in their lives, without dealing with the real issues: their son's behavior, their daughter-in-law's alienation from the rest of the family.

Triangles reduce anxiety in important relationships by taking the focus off the problem and putting it elsewhere. A husband and wife cannot resolve serious personal issues, so the husband concentrates on work. A daughter has continuing disagreements with her mother and triangulates with her father, covertly seeking to pressure her father to intervene on her behalf.

Although triangles serve a purpose, the pattern can be unhealthy. But it's possible to be triangle-savvy if one of the three individuals can see his part in the family drama and take responsibility for his role. If one person in the triangle changes his behavior, much can be achieved.

When you see that you've become part of a triangle, it's time to step back. Offer calming advice, such as: “Before you make this trust so restrictive, I suggest you talk to your son.” Or ask questions designed to help your clients realize they may play a role in the estrangement with their son and daughter-in-law. One tactic is to empathize with their point of view by stating something like: “It must be difficult integrating a daughter-in-law into the family.” Then, if you think they're capable of more, you could ask something like: “What are her strengths?” Hopefully, they'll come to realize that she is not completely at fault for the problems in the family.

Of course, not all clients will be receptive to prodding. But some — even if only a small number — will reconsider. And for those, you'll have done a great deal of good.