Honey, we have to talk

The right way to discuss money and other touchy subjects with your spouse, your kids and your parents.


From the magazine.

You’ve finally decided to get a divorce. Now you have to break the news to your nine-year-old daughter and your six-year-old son. You’re trying to come up with a way of phrasing things that will be so loving, so reassuring and so wise that no one will get upset. Surely that’s possible?

Well, no, according to Peggy English, a family mediator in Vancouver. “When parents have to tell their children they’re splitting up, my advice is, ‘Let the kids cry, let them stomp out, let them scream,'” says English. “The parents have to acknowledge to their kids that there is a crisis in the family and also tell them, ‘Together we have got the skills to pull ourselves through it.'”

As English and other mediators will tell you, most people dread difficult conversations. As a result, many of us avoid those conversations and plod forward without discussing issues that are poisoning our lives or our finances. Maybe you want to suggest a pre-nup agreement to your fiancée, but don’t know how she’ll react. Maybe your husband’s free-spending ways are driving you crazy. Maybe you’re getting older and want to have a full and frank discussion with your children about your estate plans. Or maybe you want to tell your aging mother or father that it’s time to sell the house and move into a seniors’ residence.

Whatever the specific topic, difficult conversations are difficult for a reason. You can’t hold an honest discussion on an emotional issue without stress, tears and possibly anger. But the good news is that there are ways to get through these conversations and resolve problems more effectively than you may have thought possible. Take these tips from the pros:

In the form of a question, please

Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton and Sheila Heen of the Harvard Negotiation Project conducted thousands of interviews over 15 years on the topic of difficult conversations. They concluded that people who succeed at difficult conversations don’t think of them as just a vehicle to deliver messages. Instead, they see the conversations as a chance to honestly explore the other person’s perspective on the issue. To have a good conversation, you don’t begin by announcing: “You’re wrong and here’s why.” Instead, you say: “Help me understand your point of view.”

Stone, Patton and Heen argue in their landmark work, Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most, that each of us has our own narrative about what is going on in the world. “To get anywhere in a disagreement,” they write, “we need to understand the other person’s story well enough to see how their conclusions make sense within it.” To make sure you understand the issues, listen to the other person, ask questions about what he or she says, and paraphrase the other person’s views back to him or her. To understand is not necessarily to agree, but the better you grasp how other people see their own behavior, the more effective you can be at suggesting a way to work out your problems.

Count to 10

If you’ve just opened your family’s credit card statement and are burning to blast your husband right this second about his lavish ways, fight the temptation. Take a deep breath, assemble your thoughts, consider what you want to achieve. Then ask your husband to set aside a time to discuss the issue.

When the time comes to sit down, don’t begin in anger and don’t assume that your husband or other loved one is doing something purely to spite you. “One of my favorite sayings is ‘There’s a reasonable reason for unreasonable behavior,'” says Dr. Barbara Landau, a registered psychologist and lawyer who is president of Cooperative Solutions, a family mediation service in Toronto.

Understanding your partner’s motivation is particularly crucial in situations where a spendthrift husband or wife is constantly frustrating a frugal spouse with big, unexpected expenditures. “Sometimes these situations arise because there hasn’t been enough communication,” says Peter Grove, a chartered accountant and family mediator in Vancouver. “It could be that the husband is a senior partner in a law firm. The wife knows he’s making big bucks and can’t understand why there should be any financial difficulty. It might help if he sat down with her and said, ‘Yes, we have a good income, but look how heavy our expenses are — we’ve got a very large mortgage on our house, we just bought that cabin in Whistler, here’s what we’re spending on the children’s education, and here’s what we’re paying in income taxes.'”

Be positive

There is no foolproof way to start a difficult conversation, but, where possible, look for ways to stress the positive and emphasize the future rather than the past.

This is particularly important when dealing with elderly parents, who may feel vulnerable because of their age. If you bluntly suggest they move into a seniors’ residence, they’re likely to feel threatened. Instead, you might ask if there’s anything you can do to help them maintain their independence. Discussing their independence is necessarily going to involve a frank talk about forms of help, such as in-home care and assisted-living residences.

You can use a similar approach if you want to discuss your parents’ will. Jonathan Clements, a personal finance columnist for The Wall Street Journal, recommends you ask your parents what they would like to achieve with their estate and what legacy they want to construct. Phrasing things that way puts the emphasis on the future and on your parents’ ability to shape it rather than suggesting you’re anxious to get your hands on their money.

Give fair warning

People need time to prepare themselves for dealing with many emotionally loaded situations. Consider what happened to a sixty-ish couple we’ll call Nan and Pierre Chapelle. They had decided it was time to get serious about estate planning. So they invited their four adult children over for Sunday dinner and told the kids that before dinner they wanted to decide who would get various family heirlooms after their deaths. To speed the process, they handed out stickers preprinted with each child’s name, then asked them to affix the stickers to the items they wanted. It was an eminently practical plan — but the Chapelles hadn’t realized that what seemed logical and efficient to them was highly emotional for their kids. The children, taken by surprise, flatly refused to participate in what seemed to them to be a ghoulish ritual. Nan and Pierre haven’t dared to raise the issue since.

“Canadians don’t even like to talk about money, let alone death,” says Sandra Foster, president of Headspring Consulting in Toronto and author of You Can’t Take it With You: The Common Sense Guide to Estate Planning for Canadians. “If I’d been in the parents’ situation, I probably would have had a softer conversation first. They could have said, ‘We’re trying to get our affairs in order and there’s a lot to deal with. Next Sunday after dinner we’d like each of you to pick out four or five things that you’d like.'”

Tell a story

One good way to broach a touchy topic with loved ones is to use a story about other people. This signals to your loved ones that you’re not attacking them personally. Relating the case of a friend or an acquaintance who suffered through a bitter and expensive divorce may help to explain to your fiancée why you would like a pre-nup. Similarly, mentioning a neighbor’s nasty squabble over a will may provide a springboard to discussing your own will with your adult children.

Tears can be good

Many of us dread displays of strong emotion, but you can’t have an honest conversation on many topics without tears being shed. “I think it’s often wise to start by saying, ‘This is going to be a difficult conversation. This is going to be tough for you, I know, but it’s also tough for me to bring this up,'” says Judy Aymar, director of client services for Halifax’s Northwoodcare Inc., the largest seniors’ complex in the Maritimes.

English, the family mediator, stresses the importance of being honest when it comes to strong emotions. In a divorce, children don’t want vague reassurances that everything will be fine. It’s more helpful for them to hear their parents acknowledge that the situation is going to hard for the whole family.

English believes there are four other things that divorcing parents need to say to their children: we love you; it’s not your fault; there’s nothing you can do that can put us back together again; and here’s the plan — you’re going to live here, you’re going to live there, here’s the schedule, here’s how you’ll be able to get hold of Daddy and Mommy. “No. 4 is incredibly important,” she says, “because little and even big kids will say, ‘It feels as though my world has fallen apart.'”

Stress what doesn’t change

One of the most comforting things you can do for people going through a transition is to talk about what will stay the same. Maybe your mom shouldn’t be driving anymore. You know it and you suspect she knows it, too. She might be more inclined to surrender her license if family members promise to drive her every Saturday to the farmer’s market that she’s enjoyed for years.

Take the long view

“In divorces,” says the mediator English, “one thing I find helpful to say is, ‘How do you see the future? How do you want your children to look back on this experience 10 or 15 years from now when they’re adults sitting around the dining room table with you?'” It’s a question that forces people to lift their eyes up from the here-and-now and consider the bigger picture. And it’s worth asking in a lot of other family situations. If you’re concerned about an elderly family member continuing to live alone, you might want to ask: How do you see yourself managing a year, or five years, from now?

Know when to get help

If an issue has been festering for years and family members no longer trust one another, you may want to consider bringing in an outside mediator to help propel the discussion forward. Iris Norris (whose name we’ve changed to protect her privacy) can vouch for the benefits. A widow in her eighties, she recently decided to sell her Toronto home and move near her daughter Moira, who lives 150 km west of the city. To Iris’s son, Alex, it seemed as though his sister Moira was unduly influencing their mother. He worried that he would receive less than a fair share of the inheritance upon Iris’s death. Alex stopped speaking to Moira; Iris was distraught.

The Norrises eventually went to Barbara Landau’s Cooperative Solutions in search of a neutral professional to help them talk through their problems. They met with Landau and another mediator individually and as a group. Through two day-long mediation sessions, held a few weeks apart, Moira and Alex began to realize they both wanted what was best for their mother, but perceived her needs differently. It also became clear that tension had been building for years between mother and son, caused in part by Iris’s life-long aversion to confrontation. Iris assured her children that they would inherit her estate equally, and that they could consult her lawyer any time if they had any concerns about her will’s fairness.

“I feel that mediation was our best and only choice,” Moira says. “We needed to get everything out in the open in a safe, neutral place, in front of trained, impartial professionals.” The sessions were emotionally draining, and the bill came to somewhere around $5,000. Was it worth it? Absolutely, say the Norrises, who have resumed having family dinners together. With guidance, they managed to talk their way through a conversation that could have torn apart their family.

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