Sherry Helgoe may be the only marital and family therapist in the country whose website has a page that explains what might happen when you default on your mortgage.
Her practice in Yorba Linda, Calif., is an unusual hybrid of helping clients with the traditional range of personal difficulties — divorce, bereavement, family dysfunction, etc. — and real estate-related matters.
Helgoe said she’s unaware of any other licensed therapist who has developed her sub-specialty: teaching real estate agents how to communicate better with mortgage borrowers who are at risk of losing their homes.
A therapist since 1995, about a year ago she developed a workshop on the "psychology of the distressed buyer" to help agents understand their clients better in order to help them reach decisions about short sales, foreclosures, or other alternatives for their properties.
Working now for about a year as a consultant to AssetPlanUSA, a short-sale training firm, she has conducted the workshops about 40 times, all over the country, she said.
The workshops focus on applying basic psychological principles to the needs of distressed borrowers — assessing "primary behavior styles," reading body language, and understanding how this kind of stress can complicate their decision-making.
"We look at the Holmes and Rahe stress scale that I use in my private practice, which helps to measure how much (the foreclosure) stress is affecting their private lives," Helgoe said. "Anything over 150 is considered ‘stressed out,’ and these people often are well into the 200s."
Such stress tends to disturb their thinking process, she said. Real estate agents are likely to find that it renders their clients very poor listeners — no matter how carefully an agent explains the distressed-sale process and its alternatives, they’re likely to have to repeat it for them later, Helgoe said.
"They have difficulty receiving new information," she said. "(There is) a loss of concentration and their memories are short."
Distressed sales require a different set of interpersonal skills than traditional real estate sales do, she said.
"In conventional sales, people are making money, and you’re happy to be moving — something positive is happening," she said. "Under distressed sales, you’re not making any money and you’ve lost everything you’ve invested in your home. You’re moving for nothing."
Their frustration is intense, Helgoe said.
"I hear people saying in therapy, ‘This is the destruction of a dream, and nobody believes me,’ " she said.
Before she developed the workshops, Helgoe had some background in real estate matters. In 2006, she began working with agents who were undergoing short-sale training. Her role was to give them suggestions on improved communication and on effective wording of hardship letters seeking mortgage modification.
But it was only a couple of years ago, when listening to clients, that she decided there was a deeper need in the real estate industry to understand what distressed borrowers were going through.
"I would have one client, then I would have three clients, and my graduate students (at Pepperdine University) would have clients who were talking about their financial difficulties," she recalled. "There was so much financial fighting among couples.
"All of a sudden, it was really prevalent," she said. "It just blew up."
The clients complained about difficulties in working with their real estate agents — their silence at critical moments and unreturned phone calls, she said. Clients would describe their real estate agents as "mean."
"I would tell them, It’s not that they’re being mean. It’s that people don’t know how to deal with bad news,’ " Helgoe said.
That bad news is particularly difficult at the end of the relationship between the agent and distressed borrower — when the home, one way or another, is about to be lost, she said.
"Most people hate to be around people who are experiencing grief and loss," she said. "There’s this lull (at the end of the process) when agents don’t want to talk to these clients because no one wants to say goodbye or bring bad news.
"This is the stage where consistent communication is essential," she said. "This is where you need to call them, whether you have any news or not, to let them know you have a finger on their pulse."
Nonetheless, her seminars also aim to teach agents how to avoid being personally sucked into the black holes of others’ personal travails, in this era when foreclosures and short sales are such an everyday event.
"I always ask, ‘How many of you (agents) personally know people — not just through your business — people who are dealing with distressed property sales?’ " Helgoe said. "At least 65 to 70 percent raise their hands.
"I tell them, ‘I can see how you guys have stress. You go home and deal with it on a personal level, too. It affects so many areas of your lives,’ " she said.
Like therapists, agents can practice coping strategies and stress management that may help them avoid taking home those stresses and dramas, she said. She knows it takes a toll on some agents.
"Some people are task-focused and some people are people-focused," Helgoe said. "The people who are more people-focused tend to take these things home.
"It can weigh heavy on their hearts.".