"It was impossible to get a conversation going; everybody was talking too much."
I'm standing outside in a foot of fresh snow. It's still coming down. It's the fourth snowfall in two weeks. Luckily, we have a small driveway and no sidewalks. "There's not much to shovel," I think, as I keep working. Recently our snowblower broke down and the cost to have it repaired was more than the cost of a new one. My wife and I had a conversation and I loudly make my point that I actually like shoveling and we don't need to spend our money on a new snowblower.
The mounds of snow are getting taller and taller, especially down at the end of the driveway where the snowplow comes; they are taller than I am. This makes it more and more difficult to heave the snow to the top of the pile. Plus, I'm not getting any younger; I get sore!
My wife helps me shovel and afterwards tells me that she thinks we should get a snowblower. What!? My mind jumps straight into the gutter and thinks about all the other things we could spend money on besides stupid piece of equipment we don't even need. I know how to shovel! How can she think about tossing our money out just like that; so easily?
Then, she reminds me that in addition to our driveway with the six-foot snowbanks, we shovel a very long path for our camper, which we keep in our yard and use to go winter camping. She very calmly tells me that one of the things she learned from me is that one of the best uses of money is to buy time. Instead of taking two and a half hours to shovel, I could use the snowblower and be done in 25 minutes. That's a savings of almost two hours per snowfall!
Crow doesn't taste very good!
In an instant I realized that I never took the time to find out why she wanted a snowblower; I didn't look for her point of view. I made some assumptions, and those assumptions turned out to be wrong.
Do you think this can happen with other money conversations? You bet it can!
Money Conversations Are Hard
Why is it so hard for so many of us to talk about money? On the surface this seems like a mystery, but if you take a minute and put any thought into it, it becomes very clear. Money is not natural to us. Our distant ancestors didn't have to worry about it. Money skills are foreign and most of us aren't prepared to deal with it. Money touches every area of our life. If you asked a fish about water it wouldn't have any idea what you're talking about. Money is our water. Money skills are the new survival skills.
When many of us think (or talk!) about money, a lot of negative emotions spring up. Emotions like shame, guilt, embarrassment, anxiety, fear, regret, and disappointment very quickly consume us. We have learned that alleviating these emotions helps us (in the short run) so when we think that a conversation might bring us negative emotions we tend to try to avoid it. After all, if we know bringing up money will lead to a fight, isn't it better to avoid bringing up money, so that we can avoid the fight?
How We Think (About Money)
I have to apologize for the next section on the brain. I know, BORING! However, I will try to keep it very brief and I think it helps understand how and why conversations about money often times blow up.
Our brains first develop a part of the brain that's responsible for our instincts. It develops at about six months old and resembles the brain of a lizard. The next part of our brain to develop is the part of the brain that's responsible for our emotions and resembles the brain of a monkey. It is developed at about six years old. Finally the part of our brain that is responsible for rational thought gets fully developed in our early 20s. I call this our thinking brain. The lizard and monkey brain together make up what we would call our subconscious brain, or what I call the emotional brain.
The thinking brain is what we would call our conscious brain, and is that part of the brain most of us think as "us." Unfortunately for many of us, our thinking brain makes only 1% to 9% of our decisions. We are emotional creatures. The thinking brain, however, does have the important job of controlling the impulses of the emotional brain.
If you've read (or heard of) Danial Kahneman's book, Thinking Fast and Slow, the fast brain is what I have called the emotional brain and the slow brain is what I have called the thinking brain.
Stressful Times = Fight/Flight/Freeze
All that brain stuff works fine together, normally. Imagine an person riding an elephant. The rider knows how to control the elephant just fine...in normal conditions. But, imagine the elephant gets spooked. Now the rider has ZERO control over the elephant. That's the same way our brain works. In times of high stress, our fast brain shuts off our slow brain. It goes into fight/flight/freeze mode (did you know 'freeze' is part of that?). In times of stress, our brains kick into survival mode and does what it needs to do to survive the moment. To do this it can't have a slow-thinking, hyper-analytical part of the brain costing it extra time.
The name for this when it happens during conversations is emotional flooding. When we are emotionally flooded we are not ourselves - we act like children.
Think Like a Parent
If you are a parent or are otherwise around children, you know that they can say some crazy things. Have you ever heard a six-year-old say something that, if said by an adult, would be terrifyingly offensive? When it happens, do you find yourself getting offended and verbally attacking the child? Of course your don't. You recognize that there is some reason the kid is acting this way. Perhaps she is hungry, or maybe he needs a nap. When they need something their brain tries to implement strategies that will work to meet what it needs in the moment. We know this when dealing with kids.
When we talk to other adults we lose our ability to recognize that the other person may be under stress and is doing whatever has to be done to get out of the situation. We do get offended. We often times counter attack. This is when fights get started. One person's thinking brain goes offline and the emotional brain takes over. Then, like clockwork, the other person gets offended or otherwise stressed, and that person's emotional brain takes over. Then, we are in a fight/flight/freeze situation (usually fight at this point) full of conversations we are likely to regret.
Author and thought-leader Ted Klontz has said that he thinks conversations would go much smoother if we treated other adults the way we treat six-year-olds - at least in terms of emotional flooding. When someone says something that sounds offensive or otherwise uncharacteristic, it's likely that the other person has entered a time of high stress. In this case, wouldn't it be better to take a step back, let the emotions clear, and try again later?
Acting Like a Six-Year-Old
Emotional flooding causes our thinking brains to become disconnected. If we are under high stress, then we are acting like six-year-olds. We say and do things that we normally wouldn't say because our emotional brain is trying to get us out of the high-stress situation. When connected, our thinking brains are able to control the crazy things that the emotional brain wants to say and do. Unfortunately, when it's kicked offline, there is nothing to control those impulses.
Have you ever had a heated discussion with someone and a half hour later you wondered to yourself, "Why did I say that! What was I thinking?!" That's because there was nobody watching over your six-your-old emotional brain. Then, when your thinking brain came back it got to see what happened when it was away.
The next time someone you love says something that seems like it might be getting close to offensive, ask your self this:
Is it more likely that this person that loves me is trying to hurt me or that s/he is stressed out because a need isn't being met?
You might find that by taking a step back and asking yourself if you think this person wants to hurt you, that you will be better able to figure out what need they are looking for; what caused the emotional flooding.
A Better Way
Have you ever played the game "Telephone" in school (sometimes called "Chinese Whispers")? It's a game where you sit in a circle and one person starts by whispering something in the next person's ear. Then that person whispers that message into the next person's ear. And on and on until it gets back to the person who started. It's a funny game, because it NEVER gets back to the start as the same message.
The same can be true in a conversation with two people. You have something you want to say, then you say something that you think is what you mean. I have to hear what you said and then I make a guess at what you mean. Sometimes the gap between what you meant and what I thought you meant is huge.
With understanding as our goal, we can use something called reflective listening. With this communication strategy you simply reflect back what you thought you heard. It can take the form of, "If I understand you correctly you...," "What I heard was...is that right?", or "It sounds like you..." Then, the speaker (usually your partner) gets to confirm or make corrections.
Empathy: The Goal Is to Understand
Understand that we are not ourselves when we become stressed out, or get emotionally flooded. Seek to understand what the other person is saying and what needs aren't being met if stress is high. Use reflective listening to try to fully understand what your partner is saying and you'll be able to better empathize and put yourself in his or her shoes.
Daniel Kahneman: Thinking Fast and Slow
Brad Klontz, Ted Klontz: Mind Over Money
Ted Klontz: "Exquisite Listening®" Workshop
Carl Richards: "Talking About Money" Workshop
William Miller, Stephen Rollnick: Motivational Interviewing
Marshall Rosenberg: Nonviolent Communication
Bob Veres: The New Profession
Richard Wagner: Financial Planning 3.0
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