If you want to talk about money, learn how to listen

learn how to listen

I like to talk about money.

If you have a few days to waste, I would happily tell you what you should do with your paycheck, different ways to invest your 401k, why you’re spending too much on rent, and what your childhood has to do with your spending habits.

I think a lot of us like to talk about money – that we don’t have enough or that we have so much. This restaurant is too expensive. Mortgage rates are going down. Materialism is bad. Your parents spend too much. Your friends save too little.

But we don’t like to listen.

Especially when the person you’re talking to is the person you share money with.

Andrew and I used to talk about money a lot. I would spout calculations, lectures, theories, grand plans and self-indulgent rants. Or sometimes he would talk and I would argue with him and try to point out his misconceptions about finance and his materialistic standpoints and all the ways in which he should listen more to me.

(This period is now known as The Dark Years)

For all those hours we spent talking, I never heard him.

Here’s what I see now:

He was trying to tell me his feelings about money. What he was comfortable with. Where he came from. How he saw money. What it meant to him. The things he was scared of. What he wanted.

And I walked away thinking, “he just doesn’t understand! He just doesn’t know how to talk clearly about money.”

But I didn’t know how to listen.

As I got more and more into the personal finance world, and into my blog, I started doing even more talking, and even less listening. I get a lot of outside validation – from my readers, friends, and coworkers – that I know what I’m doing when it comes to money. People in my life ask me for advice or what I would do in their situation and that makes me feel super warm inside. It’s a really positive thing that I’m deeply grateful for.

But it becomes negative when it stops me from listening to my partner.

When my opinion and experience become The Truth and Andrew becomes The Student.

Brenda Uehland, in her essay, “Tell Me More: On the Fine Art of Listening,” writes wonderfully about listening (nearly 100 years ago):

I want to write about the great and powerful thing that listening is. And how we forget it. And how we don’t listen to our children, or those we love. And least of all–which is so important, too–to those we do not love…But we should. Because listening is a magnetic and strange thing, a creative force.

For just as the tragedy of parents and children is not listening, so it is of husbands and wives. If they disagree they being to shout louder and louder–if not actually, at least inwardly–hanging fiercely and deafly onto their own ideas, instead of listening and becoming quieter and more comprehending.

I asked a therapist that I greatly admire how couples can learn to listen while they discuss money.

This was her response:

Practice this the next time you are talking with your partner about money. Don’t try this during an argument–that’s for later.

  • While the person is talking, breathe slowly and feel your breath
  • Look at him/her, watch expression and body language and the eyes
  • Note any chatter inside you: are you being defensive? can’t wait to say something? Slow it down and hear with your curious ear, not your defensive ear.
  • Ask yourself: What is this person experiencing? What story did they take away from what happened or what they heard/felt/thought? What’s the emotion underneath the story?
  • Now, ask a question–a curious, I-really-want-to-know question.

Here’s what I think will happen: you’ll feel more connected to that person and you’ll feel more calm and relaxed. You may even notice that you don’t even need to say anything, but are just happy to be completely and utterly present. That’s listening.

Cool shit, right?

I’ve been using this when I talk about money with people that I love and I notice that the “chatter” she talks about comes out as worry in my head. They don’t understand! They’re going to make a mistake! They’re going to be sad! I need to fix it! Learning how to listen hasn’t just helped my relationship with Andrew, it has also freed me. I am not responsible for the financial decisions other people make. I am not the thing standing between them and financial ruin. I’m just their friend / daughter / sister / partner and when I truly listen, I can be that for them. And truly see them.

And one last quote to from Brenda Uehland to inspire you on your financial listening journey:

When we are listened to, it creates us, makes us unfold and expand. Ideas actually begin to grow within us and come to life…When we listen to people there is an alternating current that recharges us so we never get tired of each other. We are constantly being re-created…

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  • I really like this post.

    I’m reminded of this therapy/communication approach which I think is called “mirroring”. It goes basically like this:
    Person A: “I think we’re spending too much money.”
    Person B: “I hear you saying that you think we’re spending too much money.”
    Person A: “I hate it when you buy things without us talking it over first.”
    Person B: “I hear you saying that you hate it when I buy things without us talking it over first.”
    [And so on…]

    I should disclose that I learned about mirroring from an episode of the HBO drama In Treatment, but I’m pretty sure it’s a real thing, and it seems pretty powerful (at least it was in the episode). It’s essentially one person fully listening to the other person, and voicing their listening, as opposed to using their headspace to figure out what to say next. (And it doesn’t have to be about money, obviously.)

    PS: In Treatment is SO GOOD.
    Sarah Noelle recently posted…Updates Galore!My Profile

  • ohhhh this is some goooood stuff! i actually spent a lot of money in school learning ‘attending skills’ in social work and how to ‘actively listen’ and yet i still struggle with it from time to time because #emotions. thanks for sharing this and i’m glad you are able to see ways to make it better for the both of you!

  • I totally had that “I am the expert, you are the student” vibe with my last boyfriend before Mr. ONL, and realizing that was how I knew that that relationship had reached its end. (Not that it always means that — I think you can change the dynamic. It was just the final clue that that relationship wasn’t right.) I think Mr ONL and I have actually managed to do well on money stuff, but we’ve had a lot of these same communication challenges like plenty of couples do. I did some couples counseling early on, though, that completely helped reframe a lot of things for us, and gave us the tools to work through tricky stuff. I hate that counseling has this bad wrap of just rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic, because I think it can really be enormously useful in teaching partners how to listen to each other, how to be less judgy and a whole bunch of other good skills — IF you go into it with real openness to the process. I wish more people would do it!

  • I’m working on listening better to my partner and family members as I tend to be the one dominating the conversations. Lately, I’ve been trying to say “I’m sorry that happened” versus trying to respond with a solution or a fix to their problem. It’s really hard for me to suppress my urge to solve and it’s hard to measure the results. I need to try that approach recommended by the therapist. Thanks for sharing.