I’m an accountant. Accountants are notoriously bad at communication. There is usually a reason someone chooses to become an accountant and that reason is usually because numbers are so straight-forward. They are clear and concise, easy to line up, sort and deal with. They are usually associated with projects and with decisions that have very clear outcomes. I have stated it before and I will state it again – I love doing taxes! You get to put numbers in their place, finalize the return and then send it off to the Canada Revenue Agency and you’re done. And people pay me for that fun!
Oh wait, at least you think you are done, until the Canada Revenue Agency decides it wants to question some of those numbers. Then you start to see how things are not so clear after all. The CRA has a different idea about that dinner meeting you had with a client, those moving costs you claimed, that eligible dependent credit claimed, etc, etc.
It is at the point when you have to start communicating about some of those numbers that you realize that numbers actually are not so straight-forward. In fact, numbers can be very convoluted, confusing and hard to wrangle into place.
I see this everyday – in all aspects of my work with numbers and it’s not surprising I see it the most in my work as a financial neutral in the Collaborative Divorce Process. I have found since starting this business of mine four years ago, that I work more with communication than with numbers. In fact, it is that part of my work that is the exciting part and where I see the real work is done. But it is hard. Especially for accountants. These numbers are so clear! “Why oh why client of mine do you still have questions and are unable to make a decision?” “And for goodness sake why are you making that decision? It’s illogical!”
And being an accountant and wanting to find a concrete solution I have come to see that they way we communicate with each other impacts everything (overstatement? No, I don’t think so).
And being an accountant and wanting to find a concrete solution I have developed my rules of communication (or let’s just call it rules for life shall we?).
Rule 1 – Know Thyself and Know Thy Financial Situation
So – when starting out all over again after a brutal separation and divorce, I took myself off to Minerva’s Career Kick Start program (now no longer funded – sob). I clearly needed to learn how to write a resume because I had been out of the workforce (stay-at-home-undervalued mom) for five years. There must be a trick to writing a resume and preparing for job interviews that was going to land me a job. Six weeks later, after learning all about the current job situation in Vancouver I went home and wrote my resume. I sent it out with accompanying cover letter here, there and everywhere and heard zip, zero, nada.
What was the problem? Why wasn’t I getting at least a bite, a nibble, anything?
The problem was, I didn’t want any of those jobs. Every time I put a resume in the mail or faxed or emailed one off, I felt sick. I can’t even look at the cover letters I wrote back then they are so painful to read – how could I have written that formulaic drivel? Those letters were so hard to write because I did not want the job and my language conveyed that. It took me hours and I was following a template because I didn’t know myself or know what I wanted to do. I was writing letters the way someone else told me too. It didn’t work. I wasn’t doing it for myself – I was doing it to satisfy the outside pressure I was feeling to get a job because I needed to earn money.
I spent six months waking up in the morning, freaking out about how I had no money coming in (I laid in bed for 30 minutes at least, not wanting to get up) and writing useless cover letters. Every two weeks I got a respite in the form of a coaching call with my life coach. I was also finding ways to make ends meet financially. I found money to pay my coach after all and I wasn’t destitute yet. As those six months passed I got to know myself and what was important to me and it was during that time that I realized I needed to start my own business. What? When I was 15 I had worked at a video store. When I was 15, I made a vow to myself that I would never ever have my own business. I had been living my life according to a vow I made to myself when I 15! As I learned about the values that drive me forward, self-employed accountant became an obvious solution to my problems. In fact, as soon as I said that is what I’m going to do, people started calling me to ask for help. I have not looked back. Of course, I had to know that I could swing it financially and so I had to take a clear look at my financial situation. I had been looking at my finances with panic filters on but another financial person helped me see that I could dip into my RRSP for a short term, and I would fine. She understood my financial type, she knew I would revert to my saving self again. She helped me see the financial type of person I am. Yes, I would be fine. I could make that decision to start my own business.
Rule 2 – Know the Person You are Communicating With
So the flip side of knowing yourself is knowing the person you are communicating with. This is where it gets tricky (and emotional). Oh those nasty emotions – us accountants don’t like them. So we need to get to know that person with as little emotional pain as possible. I will continue on with my story so you can get a clear picture.
I had to communicate my decision to start my own business to my co-parent. Now, as much as I wanted to have nothing to do with my co-parent at that point in my life, I still had to talk to him and tell him what I was doing because he was paying me child support and the amount of his child support payments were dependent on how much I was making. Sigh. So I told him in an email. I think I got an almost instant email back (usually he wouldn’t respond for days). I immediately got defensive and blurted my email back and so it goes until we were in deadlock which lasted for about six months at which point in time he launched his parrying shot and we landed up in court. So I have to skip to rule three now – it would have been good if I had done rule 2 but I didn’t and I inadvertently broke rule 3 (which did eventually got us back to rule 2).
Rule 3 – Set up a Neutral Time and Space to Communicate
So we went to court. It was horrifying. Court is not private. There are all these other people that are having communication problems sitting there in the audience watching and judging you on your communication problems. And then a judge looks at you like you’re both idiots and tells you to go and try and communicate again before he will set a hearing. It was very stressful and mortifying and not neutral. Here I was standing up to fight my co-parent. All I could think of was the great arguments I was going to make. I was geared to fight.
The good thing about that is that the judge did give us help in this regard. He didn’t listen to either of us (he just rolled his eyes). He assigned us another judge to act as a mediator as a last ditch effort for us to clear up our communication before going back for a court hearing. So that is what we did – we met this mediator judge in a neutral area (no audience) at a time that we had set up well in advance together so we could both be calm (as possible in this situation). She was truly neutral and she listened to both of us and forced us to listen to each other and then she sent us for counselling. So back to Rule 2.
Rule 2 – Know the Person You are Communicating With
We ended up back at counselling. I was desperate to solve this communication problem we were having as it was wreaking havoc with my life. We had hired a divorce coach recommended by one of my colleagues. We sat there for three hours and we each took turns listening to each other. That is all we did. The counselor drilled down on everything I said and then asked my co-parent to repeat back what I had said. Then it was my co-parents turn to speak and I had to repeat back what he said. I kept wanting to interrupt and I was getting so mad and defensive listening to some of the things my co-parent said. I was rolling my eyes, squirming in my chair and almost having a breakdown. This leads me to Rule 4.
Rule 4 – Shut Up and Listen
If you truly want to reach resolution on a conflict that you are having, you have to understand what the conflict is about. I could have shouted all my arguments back at my co-parent but I didn’t even know what he was upset about or what was driving him forward in the path he had chosen to take. So that counselor made me shut up and sit still and then he made me paraphrase what my co-parent was saying. In fact, this counselor just told me what to say because I couldn’t seem to do it. He just said: “Renee, say this back to your co-parent.” So I did.
The thing was, I had gone first and I was sitting there repeating back what my co-parent said, I was also processing the fact that I was feeling better. Just hearing my co-parent repeat back how I was feeling made me feel like he got it. If he had argued against some of my statements, I would have dug down and looked for more support for my arguments. Instead, I recognized that I felt better. Some of the fight had gone out of me. I felt heard and understood.
As this was all whirling in my head, I was also paraphrasing how my co-parent was feeling. I finished and the counselor said “Renee, how can you help your co-parent with how he is feeling.” and I said “I don’t know what to do, I can’t fix it.” “And you don’t need to.” is all the counselor said.
That one statement took away all the defenses and arguments that I had been building up to fight against my co-parent. I couldn’t change the way he was feeling, and he couldn’t change the way I was feeling, but just having had it acknowledged did something amazing to our communication. I understood why he was doing what he was doing. It had nothing to do with me.
To be clear – at this step, you need to each take a turn explaining what is important to you or where you are having difficulties. If you find yourself interrupting the other or suddenly saying BUT in your head, realize you have just been triggered. Then realize that you do not have argue against how the other person feels, you just need to acknowledge it. There is nothing you can do to change how a person feels – they need to just feel heard and work through it on their own. Arguing with them, only entrenches their feelings – they look at ways to justify to the person on the other side and that keeps them trapped in those feelings. Instead, if you can simply repeat back what they are trying to tell you, they will feel heard and perhaps some day will work through those feelings and find ways to let them go.
It’s at this point that you can get to rule 5
Rule 5 – You’re Never Done
So being an accountant, I had hoped that would be the end of it. We’d found a solution – we were done! That day, we resolved the issue that had gotten us to court. We also had new rules for communication – smooth sailing ahead!
That is the other thing my business and life has taught me. There are always new issues and numbers to wrangle into place. I’m getting lots of practice though and the flip side is I can support myself and help others do the same.