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Talking About Money

listen to understand
❝It was impossible to get a conversation going; everybody was talking too much.❞ -Yogi Berra

My wife and I are on the couch watching an episode of Friends. We've been slowly going through some of the most popular television shows to see what we've been missing, and Friends is one that we've seen here and there, but never in the correct order.

One thing that strikes me about Friends is how all their episodes revolve around simple misunderstandings. I wonder how boring their episodes would be if there weren't so many misunderstandings between the characters. Misunderstandings are the basis of many sitcoms because of how relevant they are to us. Misunderstandings, when they're on TV, lead to a funny episode. Misunderstandings in real life, though, can lead to uncomfortable situations.

Imagine a world where the characters of Friends simply asked each other for clarification. It would solve a lot of their problems, but it would make for boring TV. You don’t live in a sitcom, so asking for clarification will help you have better conversations about money.


Money is a taboo topic in our culture. We simply don't talk about money. We get uncomfortable when it's brought up. We change the topic. We find an excuse to leave the room. Money may be the number one taboo topic because, unlike other taboo topics, money touches every area of our life.

Money acts as a sort of benchmark for people. Like it or not, we are susceptible to social comparison. Money should not be the measuring stick we use, but it's easy to use, and thus we default to it. This gets us into a vicious cycle that ends with us being petrified to talk about money. Money carries a lot of shame for a lot of people. Once we start talking about money, we open ourselves up to be judged. We don't like being judged.

money is a taboo topic

A negative consequence of this is that it's hard for us to talk about money with the important people in our lives. It becomes easier to avoid the conversation, easier to keep secrets about money, and more likely that we end up fighting about money.

money causes people to run away


It can often seem that in any conversation where money comes up, a fight is guaranteed. In addition to opening ourselves up to judgment when we talk about money, our default communication style can also get in our way.

For most of us, we approach conversations from the standpoint of getting our message across. This is driven into us from an early age. We often learn how to better articulate our message. We learn how to be more concise. We learn how to write better emails. We do this in the name of becoming a better communicator.

Being a communicator, then, has become synonymous with learning how to talk. It's no wonder that the default mode for many people is to jump into a conversation trying to prove how smart they are, give unsolicited advice, or "win" the conversation.

listening is not about proving how smart you are, it's about understanding someone else's point of view


Adding it all up, you have a situation where money is stressful to talk about. We open ourselves up for judgment, feel shame and blame, and approach conversations with the speaking-first mentality. This is stressful. When stress runs too high, we run the risk of becoming emotionally flooded.

When we are emotionally flooded, we are effectively acting without the thinking part of our brain. The more primitive survival part of our brain takes over. The goal of the primitive brain is to get us out of stressful situations. It does this through a stress response, or a fight/flight/freeze response.

Emotional flooding happens because one or more of our basic needs isn't being met.

when a need doesn't get met we emotionally flood - entering fight or flight mode

When you are emotionally flooded, you are far more likely to get aggressive (fight), leave the room or change the subject (flight), or mentally check out of the conversation (freeze).

It's difficult, impossible even, to have an effective conversation about money when one or both of you are desperately trying to get out of a stressful situation.

it's hard to have a good conversation when you're emotionally flooded


We are more likely to become emotionally flooded when we perceive a basic need isn't being met. Every behavior we have is a desperate attempt to meet one or more of our needs. There are six basic needs; belonging, autonomy, safety and security, self-expression, connection, and purpose or significance.

Belonging – When our need for belonging is being met, we feel like we are a part of a group. We have a tribe we belong to. This can be as big as rooting for your country during the Olympics or as small as being a fan of a sports team. When our need for belonging is not being met, we feel like we are no longer part of the group. In tribal times, it was dangerous to not be a part of the group.

Autonomy - When our need for autonomy is being met, we feel like we control our lives and make our own decisions. You have autonomy at work, for example, when you're given some flexibility over how are you complete your projects. When our need for autonomy is not being met, it feels like we are being told what to do. It feels like we have no control over our actions.

Safety/Security – When our need for safety and security is being met, we feel safe. This can be literal safety, like having shelter, food, and water. In other words, we aren't likely to die. Safety and security could refer to non-survival aspects of our lives, as well. For example, some people don't feel secure when they don't have a job, even if they have plenty of savings. Some people don't feel secure when their checking account balance falls below a certain amount.

Self-Expression - When our need for self-expression is being met, we feel heard and understood. We can express ourselves. This could be through the arts, but it could also be articulating our thoughts. When our need for self-expression is not being met, we feel censored and unheard.

Connection - When our need for a connection is being met, we have healthy, close relationships. Whereas our need for belonging is about being a part of a group, our need for connection is about having relationships within that group. When our need for connection is not being met, we feel isolated and alone.

Purpose/Significance – When our need for purpose is being met, we feel like we have direction in life. We feel like we matter in the grand scheme of things. It's easy to think of purpose as some grand purpose or meaning of life, but it doesn't have to be. We can have our need for purpose met when we have a local purpose, the reason we get up in the morning. When our need for purpose is not being met, we're more likely to feel sadness and even depression because it feels like nothing that we do matters.

there are six basic human needs


Changing our mindset from trying to get our point across to listening with the intent to understand can be a game-changer. I don't have data to back this up, but anecdotally it feels like many disagreements and arguments stem from a simple misunderstanding. So how can we structure our conversations to minimize our chances of a misunderstanding, so disagreements don't get blown out of proportion?

Think about what has to happen in a conversation. Most people haven't truly been listened to, nor have they really articulated their thoughts. As a result, we tend to have thoughts bouncing around in our minds, but we have not turned those thoughts into sentences. You are walking around thinking something, and some of that might be difficult to get into words. So you try to articulate your thoughts.

Once you say something, then I have to hear it. This is the stage that most people believe communication is about. This is the stage where something comes out of your mouth and hits my ears. This stage is not guaranteed to be a perfect transfer of information because so many of us, rather than listening, are lost in thought, thinking about our response, or distracted. But even if I hear the words exactly as you said them, I can still have problems.

Once I hear what you said, I have to interpret what I think you meant by those words.

What we have is a chain with a lot of links. Every one of those links has the potential for misunderstanding. Even if I, as the listener, do everything correctly; I heard your words exactly as you articulated them, and I translated those words properly, there's still one link in the chain that I have no control over. Sometimes what we say isn't actually what we think because we haven't had a lot of practice articulating these thoughts.

without reflective listening, you may be operating on faulty assumptions

One option, the option that leads to a lot of misunderstanding, is to take our translation of what we thought the other person meant and treat it as if it's true. Then, if you are incorrect with your assumption due to any of those links in the chain, you are operating on faulty assumptions. If you say something in response, your partner might incorrectly assume what you meant. Then you're in a vicious cycle fighting based on a series of misunderstandings.

The other option, the better option, is to simply check. You can check for understanding by simply articulating what you thought the person meant to see if it's correct. This is called a reflection, and it's the basis of reflective listening. Get comfortable with hearing a "no" as an answer. Remember, if the speaker says something that you didn't get the first time, it's not necessarily because you didn't listen. It does allow the speaker to rearticulate. And most importantly, it prevents you from making faulty assumptions. After all, if you didn't check in with a reflection, you would have had your assumption wrong.

This is the basis of successful conversations about money. Focusing on fully understanding what the other person is trying to say before responding will prevent a lot of headaches later on.

reflective listening helps you make sure you understand the speaker

Reflective listening, paired with your mindset change of putting understanding at the top of your list, helps you get on the same page. When you are on the same page, you turn the situation away from you versus your partner and towards you and your partner versus the problem.

You only have one life. Live intentionally.

Until next time,


If you know someone else who would benefit from reading this, please share it with them. Spread the word, if you think there's a word to spread.

Related Money Health® Reading
References and Influences

Klontz, Brad, Edward Horwitz & Ted Klontz: Money Mammoth

Klontz, Brad & Ted Klontz: Mind Over Money

Miller, William: Listening Well

Miller, William & Stephen Rollnick: Motivational Interviewing

Reivich, Karen & Andrew Shatte: The Resilience Factor

Rosenberg, Marshall: Nonviolent Communication

Sofer, Oren Jay: Say What You Mean

Solin, Dan: Ask

Wallace, David Foster: This is Water

Note: Above is a list of references that I intentionally looked at while writing this post. It is not meant to be a definitive list of everything that influenced by thinking and writing. It's very likely that I left something out. If you notice something that you think I left out, please let me know; I will be happy to update the list.



About the Author

Derek Hagen, CFA, CFP, FBS, CFT-I, CIPM is a speaker, writer, and coach specializing in financial psychology, meaning and valued living, resilience, and mindfulness.


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