Finances Have Become a Touchy Subject in Your Home.
It’s all too common. As a financial coach for couples, I’ve seen it. Money intersects with every aspect of our lives, and emotions are easily stirred up. Talking to your partner about money has become something you both dread. You never thought that you’d find yourself shutting down -or- feeling like you’re the only one who’s serious about getting somewhere every time the topic of money comes up between you and your partner.
Coming from different backgrounds and upbringings around money, you both have different ways of dealing with finances. You assumed because your communication was good, you would figure it out. But the further along you progress in your lives together, the stresses of mortgages, grocery bills, and joint accounts are beginning to take a toll on the well-being of your relationship.
Even if communication and connection are on-point in other parts of your lives, the “money talk” can be a mine-field of avoidance, frustration, and anxiety.
“Communication is Key” Failed us All Long Ago
I’m sure you’ve heard the old canard “Communication Is Key”, but is it, really? Modern couple therapists know something the rest of us may not, and that is that communication can only happen when a couple is deeply connected. When you and your partner are connected through all the intimacy domains, communication is so much easier… even about money.
In this article, we’ll be talking about connection through conversation, specifically how I, as a financial coach, teach the couples I serve to begin growing intimacy, connection, and clarity through a simple two-step conversational strategy.
Curiosity Takes us Out of Ourselves
When was the last time you talked with someone who was truly, genuinely curious about you? As a financial coach, my guess is you couldn’t stop yourself from sharing. Curiosity without the objective of fixing, problem-solving, or an agenda is rare in our worlds and an under-practiced skill.
Pure, wholesome curiosity is acceptance.
We’re Not Trying to Fix
Who? What? When? Where? How? What could you have done differently? What can we do differently? How can we fix this?
Processes, systems, and routines are core to building a financial life that is adaptive and functional. But, when I’m working with a couple in the early stages of retooling their financial conversation, we aren’t trying to problem solve, fix, or even investigate… we’re trying to master curiosity… and there’s just one phrase you need to do that:
“Tell me more about that…”
No agenda. No problem-solving. No fixing. Just curiosity.
For anyone you interact with, in almost any situation, you can prompt “Tell me more about that…” and even ask it repeatedly and it will function as a vacuum, pulling people out of themselves. Prompt your partner with that one phrase, then listen deeply. For just a moment step away from your own anxieties and narratives, and listen. Slow your breathing.
Curiosity takes us out of ourselves and gives us a break from our own mental chatter. Don’t get me wrong, this takes some practice, but this intentional practice isn’t just good for your partner, it’s good for you. This slow, intentional curiosity practice gives us the opportunity to check our own narratives.
Narratives are Something Our Brains Do Well
We have a depth of experience with the people who are dear to us.
Counter-intuitively, our brains use that wealth of experience to truncate what that person is saying and doing.
Ya, ya, ya, bla, bla, bla, our brains say, because they know this person and their actions and reactions so well. Our brains sub in a narrative for what that person actually meant by saying this, or intended when they do that.
Paradoxically, your extensive history with your partner may hamstring your understanding of each other. I have a luxury you may not have because I have no history with you, I get to see you both with unconditional acceptance. I take what my clients say as absolute truth, without any subtext, because I’m not listening through the fog of long experience and internal narratives.
And just to really hammer this home… your brain coming up with sub-meanings, narratives, and stories is NORMAL. It’s hard work to teach our busy but kind lazy brains to slow down and actually listen. The narratives you’ve built up around the people closest to you function as a shortcut so your brain doesn’t have to pay close attention. Brains are constantly seeking ways to conserve energy and effort.
I’ve heard it over and over: “My partner would not have said that if they were just talking to me.” And maybe they wouldn’t, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t duplicate what I’m doing. Give yourself and your partner some grace. Internal storytelling is not a personality defect, and it’s not a choice. But it can be stubborn and sticky once we tell ourselves these stories hundreds of times.
Practice on EVERYONE
At every stage in Holistic Financial Coaching Services, we practice a concept or tool on non-financial things first. For the curiosity practice, I encourage you to ask at least two people a day “Tell me more about that”.
Did someone at work have a heckuva weekend? “Tell me more about that!”
Is your kid having a bummer day? “Tell me more about that.”
And again, no agenda here. You’re not trying to fix anything, you’re just practicing listening and enjoying others sharing with you.
Pure Curiosity Double-Checks Our Assumptions
I’ll bet that as you begin to intentionally practice curiosity without trying to resolve anything, you’ll be surprised by your interlocutor. You may hear something you didn’t expect or something that is counter to what you thought they might say, and that’s the point. Those little stories we tell ourselves about each other may be well-worn, but they are not totally indelible, and they are frequently incorrect.
Allowing those narratives to change allows us to accept people for who they are right now. Long histories and entrenched narratives fix people in our minds in a way that can’t change, and if there’s one thing people do ALL THE TIME, is change. Your partner is a moving target, and so are you.
“So What I Hear You Saying is…”
You’ve been sold to. You’ve been at a sales desk with someone who feeds their kids if you buy whatever they are selling today. And that person has asked you what you were looking for in a car or a house, or a phone and then they said “So what I hear you saying is…” and then they sum up what they’ve heard, pivot it, and pitch. Something as innocuous as a summary can be manipulated.
Something as admirable as trying to find common ground can also be perceived as manipulation. Finding common ground is a good thing in negotiations, brainstorming, and conflict resolution.
However, the primary purpose of this practice is curiosity. We aren’t problem-solving, or even trying to get to an agreement. That comes later. The purpose of this practice is to double-check our narratives through curiosity.
So Let’s Double-Check
Let’s go one layer gentler than “So what I hear you saying is…” and borrow a tool from the world of Motivational Interviewing.
The Simple Reflection:
Your teenager seems a little stompier than usual. You’ve asked them how their day was and you got the typical “Fine”, and because you’re brave, you prompted “Tell me more about that?” and maybe you got one more sentence out of them. “School is stupid.”
Did you correct them, ask a who/what/when/where/how question or try to help them reframe? Did you tell a story about how you once thought school was stupid too? No! Because you’re practicing pure curiosity without trying to fix or resolve. So now it’s your moment. Now you get to shine!
You say “School is stupid.”
Sounds too simplistic, right? But you just proved to your child that you were listening, and you heard them correctly. That’s all a Simple Reflection is designed to do. Just like a mirror, you’re simply using their own language right back at them.
There is no need to over-complicate a simple reflection. Since you aren’t trying to resolve anything or fix anyone (have I brainwashed you on that yet?), you don’t need a fancy intervention.
Your partner is excited about a new work project, and you say “That sounds exciting”.
Your colleague is overwhelmed with their workload, you say “You’re really overwhelmed.”
Your waitress apologizes because the restaurant is busy and they are understaffed, and you say “You’re really busy!”
Simple reflections require only that we listen and reflect back without filtering through our own bullshit. No fixing, no judgment, no narratives, just reflection.
And then, once again, you can deploy “Tell me more about that.” and even if you just prompted them a few moments ago, they’ll likely do exactly that.
Get a Bit More Complex But Not TOO Complex
Also from the world of Motivational Interviewing, and Big Brother a Simple Reflection is a Complex Reflection.
With a Complex Reflection, we’re going to take a guess.
You’re teenager says “School is stupid”, you might take a guess. “You don’t like your classes?” And then you shush. Let them correct you if you’re wrong, and explain themselves. And then, why not, return back to “Tell me more about that…” and you’ve got yourself a solid little conversation.
If your partner is excited about a new work project, you might try “That sounds challenging!”
Your colleague is overwhelmed with their workload, you say “You’re getting burned out.”
Your waitress apologizes because the restaurant is busy and they are understaffed, and you say “That sounds exhausting!”
The beauty of a Complex Reflection is that it doesn’t matter if you’re wrong. I frequently leverage intentionally incorrect reflections to get someone to correct me and elaborate. It does not matter to me that they might think I’m a ding-dong for making that assumption, because it isn’t about me. It’s about THEM.
Having a Meaningful Conversation Doesn’t Require Much
“Tell me more about that”. Simple or complex reflection.
Very often I get pushback right about now because of the repetition of “Tell me more about that.” Here’s how that goes:
Me: It’s ok to repeat “Tell me more about that”.
Client: But don’t they pick up on the fact that you’re repeating?
Me: You’re worried that if you repeat yourself they’ll think you’re not listening? (Complex Reflection)
Client: No, it just seems kind of like the repetition would get tiresome.
Me: Can you say a little more about that?
Client: (Realizes what we’ve just done)
No, it doesn’t get tiresome. People don’t get tired of talking to someone who is genuinely interested in them. Even if you and your partner are both practicing this curiosity two-step (and I recommend it), even if you both know what the other is about to prompt with, it still works. It works because we all would rather talk than listen.
Practicing listening without our own narratives corrupting the hearing is a skill, not something that too many people are born naturally at.
Final Thoughts From a Financial Coach
Finances are deeply connected to the survival-obsessed parts of our brains and are all wound up with resource scarcity, crisis, self-worth, and insecurity. Financial conversations can register as a threat, and no matter who you are, you will protect yourself from or utterly avoid threats.
Just expecting yourselves to magically push through a financial conversation “once and for all” will not work. If that was going to work for any of us, it would have worked by now. The mechanics of money are critical but will crumble without a deep understanding of each other. Without a secure connection with your partner, and the resulting effective communication, the money conversation you want will not happen.
Picture me holding your face in my hands… Hear me: you will NEVER be able to set and keep a budget together if you do not feel connected. These two curiosity prompts (“Tell me more about that” simple or Complex Reflection) are just the first steps towards a healthy, safe, adaptive financial conversation with your partner.
Your Very Next Steps:
Download the Curiosity/Reflection Tip Sheet for some extra ideas on how this practice can change how you and your partner talk about money:
Or if you’re just ready to get started with a financial coach in Holistic Financial Coaching for couples, let’s find some time for the three of us to talk next week! You can pop yourself right on my calendar below.
Next Recommended Article: How and When to Use Your Emergency Fund
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