Why you need to learn your partner's money language

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Before my career as a behavioural economist, I worked in the arts.

We were in the last two weeks of rehearsals for a major theatre production of Romeo and Juliet and a heated argument broke out between three key people about how the director wanted to stage the fight scene between Romeo and Tybalt. Sensing that the argument had descended into emotional reactivity, I pulled each person aside at an appropriate moment and had three different conversations.

With one I talked about the true meaning and intent of the original Shakespeare text, and how this directorial decision would stay true to the intended meaning (focusing on ideals). For another, I talked about the impact this would have on all the school kids attending the show and how this would help open their minds and impact the way they saw Shakespeare and theatre more generally (focusing on interpersonal connection). To the last person I talked about how many times this had been done before in other productions to great success (focusing on data).

learn their money language

Three different people, having a conversation about the same thing, but coming from three different angles. I spoke their art language.

Having money conversations with family and friends works in a similar way. You need to speak each other's language in order to effectively communicate.

No culture in history, when presented with the concept of money, has then rejected it. It makes sense of our lives and stimulates connection and social advancement. But because of its high utility, it also has become a way we represent ourselves to the world. Our finances are one of the major things that express who we are, our values, and what it means to be human. Our finances are a representation of us.

Because of this, money is deeply connected to our emotions. Not only do our emotions affect how we spend, invest or save, but our financial position also impacts our emotional state. Control your emotions and you have a better chance of controlling your finances. 
If you struggle to control your emotional reactivity, then it's likely that money is controlling you. The best way to subdue the high emotion of money is to talk about it. However, talking about money is complicated precisely because it has such a strong link to our core identity. So if done incorrectly, it can have the opposite effect - it can raise emotions, not reduce them.

For artists, their "art" is as close a representation of their identity as money is for many of us. If they feel you are attacking their art, it will feel to them as if you are attacking a part of them.

When there was a disagreement in the pressure-cooker environment of the rehearsal room, I needed to communicate well in order to ease the emotion in the room and have a rational conversation.

You need to speak directly to people's emotional side to help calm the reactivity and have a more rational conversation. The key to communication with this emotional side is in understanding what language their emotional side speaks - the language of data, of ideals, or of interpersonal connection.

Avoid falling into the trap of shouting your own language in an attempt to make people understand.

Learning other people's money language will help avoid many misunderstandings and opens the door to more harmonious collaboration in all areas of life. In my experience, achieving success without knowing the three money languages, as Shakespeare would say, "stands not within the prospect of belief."

Three steps to have better conversations about money

1. Listen

Notice what is a sensitive issue for the other person and ask them why it feels as if there is more energy around that topic. Listen to how they frame their own arguments. Often people speak to you in the language they wish to be spoken to. Listen for them to talk about numbers and statistics, personal stories or how things "should" be done.

2. Practise

Before having a conversation, practise different money languages. Pick a financial decision you need to make together (e.g. which streaming service to subscribe to), and ask yourself what decision you would make if you took a pure data perspective, the 'right thing to do' perspective, or an 'impact on people you care' about perspective. Observe how you feel in each scenario to help you choose the right language to use in your conversation.

3. Mix it up

If you are unsure, practise adding an element of all three perspectives into your narrative. This is helpful when speaking to a group as you will make each person feel as if you understand where they're coming from.

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Phil Slade is a behavioural economist and psychologist and the author of Going Ape S#!t! and founder of Decida. He works across digital innovation, strategy and cognitive bias.