I’m an accountant. Accountants are notoriously bad at communication. Often, someone chooses to become an accountant because numbers are so straightforward. They are clear, concise, and easy to line up, deal with and sort. They are usually associated with projects and decisions with clear outcomes. I have stated it and will repeat it – 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. Done! 

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 could be clearer after all. The CRA has a different idea about your dinner meeting with a client, the moving costs you claimed, that eligible dependent credit claimed, etc.

It is at the point when you have to start communicating about some of those numbers that you realize that numbers are more complex. Numbers can be very convoluted, confusing and hard to wrangle into place.

I see this every day – in all aspects of my work with numbers, and it’s not surprising I see it the most in my career as a financial neutral in the Collaborative Divorce Process. Since starting this business eight years ago, I have worked more with communication than numbers. That part of my work is exciting and where I do the actual work. But it is hard, especially for accountants. The numbers are so precise! “Why do you still have questions and cannot decide?” And for goodness sake, why are you making that decision? It’s illogical!”

Being an accountant and wanting to find a concrete solution, I have seen how we communicate impacts everything (overstatement? No, I don’t think so).

And being an accountant and wanting to find a concrete solution, I have developed my communication rules (or let’s call it rules for life, shall we?).

Rule 1 – Know Thyself and Know Thy Financial Situation

When starting over again after a brutal separation and divorce, I took myself off to a career transition program. I needed to learn how to write a resume because I had been out of the workforce (a stay-at-home-undervalued mom) for five years. There must be a trick to writing a resume and preparing for job interviews that would 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 an 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, faxed or emailed it, I felt sick. I can’t even look at the cover letters I wrote back then; they are painful to read – how could I have written that formulaic drivel? Those letters were hard to write because I did not want the job, and my language conveyed that. It took me hours because I didn’t know myself or know what I wanted to do. I was writing letters the way someone else told me to. It didn’t work. I wasn’t doing it for myself – I was doing it to satisfy the outside pressure I felt 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 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. After all, I found money to pay my coach and wasn’t destitute yet. As those six months passed, I got to know myself and what was important to me, and it was then that I realized I needed to start my own business. What? When I was 15, I worked at a video store. When I was 15, I told myself I would never have a business. I had been living according to a vow I made to myself when I was 15! As I learned about the values that drive me forward, a self-employed accountant became an obvious solution to my problems. As soon as I said that was what I would 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, 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 be fine. She understood my financial type; she knew I would revert to my saving self again. She helped me see the kind 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

Not only do you need to know yourself, but you also need to know the person you are communicating with about the numbers. Speaking about finances is tricky (and emotional). Oh, those nasty emotions – we accountants don’t like them. So we need to get to know that person with as little emotional pain as possible. I will continue 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 back my reply, and so it went until we were in a deadlock which lasted for about six months, at which point he launched his parrying shot, and we landed up in court. 

Rule 3 – Set up a Neutral Time and Space to Communicate

So we went to court. It was horrifying. Courts are not private. Many other people with communication problems are sitting in the audience watching and judging 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 would make. I was in full combat mode with my co-parent. 

The good thing about that is that the judge did give us help. He didn’t listen to either of us (he just rolled his eyes). He assigned 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 a 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 genuinely neutral, and she listened to both of us, forced us to listen to each other, and then 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 as it was wreaking havoc with my life. We hired a divorce coach recommended by one of my colleagues. We sat there for three hours, each taking turns listening to the other. That is all we did. The counsellor drilled down on everything I said and then asked my co-parent to repeat what I had said. Then it was my co-parent’s turn to speak, and I had to repeat what he said. I kept wanting to interrupt, and I felt angry and defensive when listening to what my co-parent said. I was rolling my eyes, squirming in my chair and almost breaking down.

Rule 4 – Shut Up and Listen

If you genuinely want to resolve a conflict that you are having, you have to understand the conflict. 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 his chosen path. So the counsellor made me shut up and sit still, and then he made me paraphrase what my co-parent was saying. This counsellor told me what to say because I couldn’t seem to do it. He said, “Renée, say this back to your co-parent.” So I did.

I had gone first, and I was sitting there repeating what my co-parent said; I was also processing the fact that I was feeling better—hearing my co-parent repeat how I felt 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. Instead, I recognized that I felt better. 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 felt. I finished, and the counsellor said, “Renee, how can you help your co-parent with how he is feeling.” I said, “I don’t know what to do; I can’t fix it.” “And you don’t need to.” is all the counsellor said.

That statement took away all the defences and arguments I had been building up to fight against my co-parent. I couldn’t change how he was feeling, and he couldn’t change how I was feeling, but acknowledging it did something extraordinary to our communication. I understood why he was doing what he was doing. It had nothing to do with me.

To be clear – in step 4, 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 to argue against the other person’s feelings; you need to acknowledge them. There is nothing you can do to change how a person feels – they need to feel heard and work through it on their own. Arguing with them only entrenches their feelings – they look for ways to justify to the person on the other side, which keeps them trapped in those feelings. Instead, if you can repeat what they are trying to tell you, they will feel heard and perhaps someday 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 end it. We’d found a solution! That day, we resolved the issue that had gotten us to court. We also had new rules for communication – smooth sailing ahead!

Haha no.

That is the other thing my business and life have 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