Tackling Tough Money Conversations

Whether it’s spending, debt, investments, travel, cars, retirement, college, kids, or parents, life provides lots of opportunities for conversations about money. For some couples, certain topics are smooth sailing, while others set off fireworks. Those are the topics most often avoided until they come up in the financial planner’s office, or during a crisis. A lot of relationships would benefit by doing some intentional work on tough topics, before they go past the point of repair in the relationship. 

A simple 3-step conversational technique, originated by Harville Hendrix, Ph.D., can help couples work toward a mutual understanding, and eventual solution, to the emotional impasse. It goes like this: 1) Mirror; 2) Validate; 3) Empathize. ​Simple, but not easy, right? 

Mirror, validate, empathize over something which you vehemently disagree? How’s that supposed to happen? Courtesy of Ken Donaldson, author of Marry YourSelf First and a licensed mental health counselor, if both parties want to communicate better, they need to agree to take turns being the speaker and the listener. The roles are played through all 3 steps before switching. 

Below is an abbreviated description of the process: 

Mirror – the listener repeats back what the speaker said, using “What I hear you saying is….” followed by “Did I hear you right?”, followed by “Tell me more.” The listener only listens, showing caring and curiosity. 

Validate – the listener does not have to agree with the speaker, but does need to see the issue as their partner sees it, by completing the statement, “That makes sense to me because…” or “I can see where….” 

Empathize – again, the listener is not necessarily agreeing, but is understanding how the partner came to feel that way about it, by saying, “And so I can imagine you must be feeling…..” Donaldson suggests identifying three specific emotions that your partner might be feeling, and saying, “Am I right?” and “Are there other feelings I didn’t name?”  

When the 3 steps are completed, roles are switched and the same structure is followed. The speaker is seeking to be understood, and the listener is seeking to understand. Not everyone can get all the way

Holly Donaldson

Holly Donaldson, CFP® runs an hourly and fee-for-service financial planning practice virtually from her Tampa Bay, Florida office. She also works with clients throughout the U.S. (except Texas) interested in retirement and tax planning advice without product sales or investment management. Holly is the author of The Mindful Money Mentality: How to Find Balance in Your Financial Future (Porchview Publishing, 2013) and publisher of the award-winning monthly e-letter, "The View From the Porch."

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