“Jeff, wouldn’t it be great to take a trip to Italy to see all that magnificent art?”
“Jamie, you know we can’t afford that. You’re always coming up with these expensive ideas that are way out of line with our budget.”
I’ve heard this conversation in various forms at least five hundred times in the past 30 years. It’s the type that goes nowhere, resulting in bad feelings between the two parties.
It would be easy to construct cases against both Jeff and Jamie. Why is Jeff unable to listen to Jamie, hear her enthusiasm, champion her dreaming, and be generally supportive? Why is Jamie bringing up something she knows is beyond their means and putting Jeff in the position of being the bad guy?
First, from a communication styles perspective, Jeff has stronger logical and intrapersonal components. Jamie is more visually-spatially, interpersonally oriented. Jeff has to digest something more thoroughly before adequately responding, whereas Jamie speaks spontaneously and thinks out loud. Understanding and accounting for these style differences can help.
Second, everyone — virtually everyone — has money issues. Money is a powerful force in our lives, as are sex and spirit. We spend a lifetime trying to understand, work with and expand our understanding of these forces. We struggle with their meaning, quantity and quality. It is part of being human.
Our family histories play a major role in our relationship to money, too — the values held by our parents, our socio-economic place in society, and the conflicts around money that played out day to day. A failure to understand these dynamics and reposition them in our adult lives insures continued confusion and struggle in our current relationships.
Jamie and Jeff would do well to examine the role of money in their lives, beginning in childhood. Then they need to understand what money means to them now and how they work with it individually and relationally. From a communication standpoint they must learn how to talk differently to each other when money is the topic or part of the topic. So what could that sound like?
Jamie: Jeff, I’ve always loved art and wish I could immerse myself in it.
Seeing all the beautiful paintings and sculpture in Italy would be fantastic.
Jeff: Yeah, you’d be in heaven, wouldn’t you?
Jamie: Oh god, yes. It would be a dream come true.
Jeff: Maybe we can find a way to work toward that.
So let’s analyze this conversation a little. It is pretty simple and straightforward. First Jamie talks about her feelings and fantasy. No requests, no high stakes provocative comments, just how she feels about something important. Jeff listens and validates her feelings. No need to talk about money as a first order of business.
This topic will need to be revisited several times. With a good start, where both people understand what’s important, the chances for successful resolution are more achievable. If everything gets packed into one conversation, the likelihood of success is very limited. High stakes, comprehensive conversations are rarely, if ever, desirable or successful.
A good rule of thumb in any conversation is to make sure you know what’s important to the other person before you put in your own commentary. So if you don’t know what’s important, ask —”Tell me what’s important to you.” It’s the smart, safe way to proceed. Always seek understanding.