In 1969 Dr. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross published the ground-breaking classic, On Death and Dying. In that book, Kubler-Ross wrote of years of research and observations working with terminally ill patients. She described what she called the "Five Stages of Dying" -- five stages that people went through after they had been diagnosed as terminally ill. Those stages were (1) Denial, (2) Anger, (3) Bargaining, (4) Depression, and (5) Acceptance.
Recently, Thomas Lawler, a Virginia-based housing consultant, has observed that sellers in a declining market are prone to progressing through the same five stages. While Lawler's observations are no doubt true and important, we must note here a significant, so-far unobserved, corollary. That is, real estate agents in a dying market are prone to progress through a similar five stages.
The first stage, Denial, is similar to that observed in terminally ill patients. It is the first reaction of agents. They refuse to accept the diagnosis. They reject the data, no matter how carefully it is presented. While in the denial stage they will clutch at straws, often looking for second, third, and even fourth opinions. They will exaggerate the importance of even the slightest bit of good news.
After Denial comes Anger. Here there are important differences between real estate agents and terminally ill patients. The latter are inclined to be angry with God or some vague forces such as Fate. The anger of agents, however, tends to be directed toward some tangible being, such as the broker. It is the broker's fault that there are no good leads, no phone calls, etc.
The direction of anger will vary depending on the level of abstraction with which the agent is working. If it is the agent's personal lack of activity, then the broker is the likely target. However, if the agent really does perceive the problem to be larger, e.g. to be a local, regional, or even national phenomenon, then the agent may direct his anger to such entities as nay-sayers in the newspaper, economists, or even "the government."
After Anger comes the Bargaining stage. Here, the real estate agent is more like a terminally ill patient in that his bargaining is liable to be directed to some outer force (God, Fates, Forces of the Universe). This takes the form of, "If only something good will happen, I will do such and such." Those of us who have been around long enough to remember the early nineties will recall the Realtor's prayer, "Dear Lord, if you will give me just one more good market, I promise not to %&!* it all away the next time." That is bargaining.
Next, Depression is experienced. This is unlike the well-known inchoate clinical depression for which the sufferer cannot name a cause. The depression that characterizes the fourth stage is understood as a result of some reality. It is the depression experienced when one realizes that the days of big bucks are over, that it won't be possible to make the lease payments on that fancy car, that there won't be anymore $200 golf rounds, etc. It is depression with a focus.
Kubler-Ross observed a final fifth stage among terminally ill people, which she called Acceptance. But this should not be thought of as a happy or benign state. Rather, it is a giving up, a ceasing to struggle. It happens to real estate agents as well. Having recognized the reality of a dying market and after being depressed about the personal results thereof, the agent surrenders and stops struggling.
However, he does not necessarily withdraw. He may still show up at the office, still partake of doughnuts, even go to an affiliate-sponsored function at the board. But he just isn't there in spirit. He is no longer engaged.
Kubler-Ross' subjects, of course, died. That was the unique class of people she was observing. But this is not what happens to real estate agents who have experienced the five stages brought on by a dying market. The agents don't die; they just grow listless.