What Crisis Negotiation Can Teach Business Leaders About Discussing Money

Michelle is a financial advisor and the founder of MichelleAB, a lifestyle platform that enables change-makers to achieve financial freedom.

As the leader of a business or an entrepreneur, how do you talk to yourself about money? Are you empathetic and gentle with yourself? Or do you sound more like a strict, overbearing parent?

There’s a good chance that if you believe the worst thing someone could find out about you is that you don’t have it all going on when it comes to money in general or even the financial state of your company, your self-talk might not be that kind. And while negative self-talk is a significant challenge to being good with money, the bigger challenge could be that too few of us talk to others about our money.

According to a survey conducted by Nonfiction Research (registration required), of the 21% of Americans who already have a financial advisor, 64% wish they had someone to talk to about their money. Talking to others can affect what we experience and how we behave in the world. To change our experience and behavior then, we need to change the messages we receive.

As we all know, though, change isn’t easy. Perhaps no one knows this better than FBI hostage negotiators. The techniques these skilled experts use to diffuse a crisis situation are surprisingly applicable to adjusting negative self-talk. Let’s explore what crisis negotiation can teach us about how we talk to ourselves about money.

The Process Of Change

One reason change is hard is that it’s a process with many complex steps. Psychologists have identified six stages of change:

1. Precontemplation.

2. Contemplation.

3. Preparation.

4. Action.

5. Maintenance.

6. Relapse.

The fact that the final stage, “relapse,” tells us everything we need to know about why change is so difficult. Even when we have decided to take action — a decision that usually happens after long periods of ignoring the need to act, considering whether to act and preparing to act — change isn’t guaranteed.

Now imagine yourself as an FBI hostage negotiator for a moment. Your job is to take a volatile person through these six stages of change and make sure everyone gets out alive. To make this happen, the Crisis Negotiation Unit of the FBI has adopted the Latin phrase pax per conloquium, “resolution through dialogue,” as its motto. In other words, the cornerstone of the FBI’s theory of change is that to change, we need to speak out loud to someone else.

Listening Off The Ledge

As an example, my clients are not people who wish they had someone to talk to about money. They know they can talk to me. But more importantly, they know I will listen to them. 

So, a lot of what former FBI crisis negotiator, Chris Voss, says in his book Never Split the Difference: Negotiating As If Your Life Depends on It, resonated with me. For instance, Voss describes the behavioral change stairway model (BCSM) where negotiators use active listening, empathy, rapport and influence to lead someone up the stairway to behavior change.

When we find ourselves trapped in a negative feedback loop within our own self-talk, what we need, more than anything, is an empathetic ear to listen and reflect our own beliefs back to us. The next time you find yourself thinking negative thoughts about your financial situation, consider who in your support system could receive what you have to share and be your mirror. 

Next, use these steps below as an exercise to help you step away from that ledge. 

1. Find the right listening partner. The right person will be an active listener who can listen without interrupting, responding or “fixing” your money story.

2. Share your story.

3. Have your listening partner reflect your story back to you. As you listen to what they say, try to be objective and avoid getting defensive.

4. Realize you haven’t failed and you’re not unlovable.

5. Come up with your action plan to replace the negative self-talk with positive affirmations.

In the act of hearing your story reflected back to you, you’ll begin to hear your own thoughts as external to you, and it can open your eyes to options you might not have considered. You may even be able to see your behavior as irrational and decide to take a different action.

Listening off the ledge really illustrates the power of active listening. When the exercise is done well, there is only room for listening and reflecting. There’s no room for criticism, advice or feedback. I’ve observed that it is a really effective way to change the messages you receive.

Figuring Out What’s Really Going On

Why does listening off the ledge work? I hesitate to compare negative self-talk to hostage-taking, but the process of change can be similar. When you take yourself through the transformation from “I’m bad with money and ashamed that I haven’t figured this out” to “I am good with money and doing everything I can to take care of my future self and my company,” you are really training yourself to listen to the adult inside.

See, we all have three inner voices: 

• The parent who is overly mature, fearful, worrying and acts older than we are.

• The child who is fun-loving, overlooks responsibilities and doesn’t worry about anything.

• The adult who stands in the balanced middle refereeing arguments between the other two.

To diffuse our negative self-talk, we need to freely share our money stories with others. Find a good listening partner, and put your inner adult into the driver’s seat.


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