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Tips for having productive family conversations about finances

Difficult conversations can still be productive ones

Conversations about finances can be uncomfortable, even with the people who are close to us — like a spouse or partner, parents, siblings or children. But money and other financial matters are often tightly linked to your goals and dreams for all phases of life — and often deeply intertwined with family relationships — so being able to have an open dialogue is important.

You may have been here already — like trying to align with your partner on a budget, talking through how to get out of credit card debt, or how to bounce back from a major unplanned expense.

These aren’t easy conversations, so your tendency may be to avoid them — but misalignment and hoping it will somehow go away on its own can lead to resentment and problems down the road. So even though it may not be the easiest option, having these discussions is often important and necessary.

Ultimately, even if everyone doesn’t agree, being open about your thoughts and feelings can strengthen your relationships. We’ve prepared some tips to help you navigate these potentially uncomfortable conversations and make them productive.

1. Be prepared and consider some ground rules

Like other topics that can be extremely personal in nature, financial conversations with your loved ones can sometimes bring out strong reactions and raw feelings.

You may be surprised to learn how others feel — or even how you feel — and need to process those feelings once you start talking about them.

So before you dive in, it’s best to have a plan — and if you think the conversation may get heated or turn into an argument, it may even be smart to establish some ground rules about sharing and listening and agree to them up front.

If you have a lot you want to discuss, you can prepare some notes for yourself — or even have all the participants bring some written thoughts to the discussion to share with each other.

2. Be honest, even if it feels uncomfortable

Having an honest conversation in which we share our hopes, fears and dreams requires courage. When doing so, you might feel vulnerable — but know that your vulnerability may encourage your loved ones to express themselves honestly.

And be honest about being honest — it might be hard for you. Or you might be afraid your honest opinion does not align with others’. But short-term awkwardness resulting from honesty is better than misalignment or resentment by agreeing to something you don’t want for the long term.

It’s perfectly normal and OK to feel strong emotions — but try to channel them appropriately. If something has bothered or upset you, take a deep breath and a step back before reacting too quickly. You don’t want to do or say something that you’ll regret later.

You can tell your loved one that you need to take some time to consider what a constructive conversation about the issue would sound like. Then, get back to them sooner rather than later with a response. To give you clarity, write out your thoughts.1

3. Be present and focus

A Harvard University study found that we spend close to 50 percent of our waking hours thinking about something other than what we’re doing2 — evidence of how easy it is to get lost in our own thoughts.

Listening to someone can be the nicest present we can give them. To make sure we give them our undivided attention, have your conversation in a comfortable place without distractions.

That means putting your phone away and really focusing on the person speaking, and to quieting the mental dialogue going on in your head. Writing down words or phrases you hear the other person say can help you focus. You can even ask questions like “Are you saying…” to make sure you really understand the information they are relaying to you.2

4. Ask open-ended questions

Open-ended questions serve as an invitation for the speaker to give a more in-depth, authentic response. When you ask an open-ended question, you are in essence bouncing the ball back to the speaker. You’re saying: “Tell me more, I’m interested.” And you’re putting them at ease to share more of their thoughts and feelings.3

Helpful open-ended questions start with the words: who, what, when, where, and how. Avoid questions that start with the word “why.” Why? Because they tend to put people on the spot. And they can make people feel defensive.3

5. Listen to understand, not to respond

The Greek philosopher Epictetus noted there was a reason we have one tongue and two ears. So we can “hear twice as much as we speak.” Take time to process what you hear — wait until people are done talking before planning your response.

Some experts recommend taking an improv approach when practicing focused listening. In improv, you really don’t know what the other person is going to say next. So you have to react in the moment. Not giving a rehearsed response can show your loved one that you’re really listening.4

Also, react with empathy, not judgment. Your loved ones will be much more apt to open up to you, if they feel respected.4

After the other person finishes speaking, you can be sure you really understand what they just said by summarizing it. That way you have an accurate knowledge of what was said and the other person knows you really listened to them. And when someone feels listened to, they will want to listen to you, and your relationship grows.5

6. You don’t have to know all the answers

It might help to think of a conversation in terms of a rose, which consists of a flower, thorns, and buds. A conversation may focus on what’s good (the flower), what’s not so good (the thorns), and what’s promising (the buds).

When you picture a rose that’s nurtured and cared for, you imagine something that’s beautiful, smells good, and grows.6

This will set the right tone for a productive conversation and keep the line of communication open. So set a date in the near future to regroup. This will give you some time to reflect and gather more information if needed.

It may seem like a lot of work to have these in-depth conversations about finances with your loved ones. And even if not everybody agrees, you will have created a good platform to continue the discussion and work toward finding alignment — which will ultimately strengthen your relationships.

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1. Denis, Brittany. “What it takes to lead honest conversations: Advice from a recovering people pleaser.” Published February 14, 2020.

2. Daum, John. “5 ways to be more present when talking to someone.” First Things First. Published September 3, 2020.

3. Lane, William. “How do open-ended questions improve interpersonal communication?” Published October 1, 2019.

4. Bryant, Adam. How to be a better listener.” The New York Times. Accessed June 15, 2021.

5. Edberg, Henrik. “How to become a better listener: 10 simple tips,” The Positivity Blog. Updated April 7, 2021.

6. Christian, Kwame. “How to get more out of your conversations,” Forbes. Published April 30, 2021.

DOFU 6-2021