Dear Crucial Skills,
My father is nearing retirement age, and we have strong reason to believe he is in some serious financial trouble. He receives all of his credit card bills electronically (which means my mother doesn’t see them) and he refuses to tell her what the balance is on these cards. We are also aware of two risky “investment” ventures he put on the credit cards that did not pan out.
My mom’s debit card was recently rejected for insufficient funds when she tried to purchase groceries, even though their joint salaries are more than enough for them to live comfortably. I am very worried that my father is in a deep financial hole but is too proud to ask for help—or even admit that he needs help.
How do I talk to my extremely defensive father about his finances and get him the help he needs?
Dear Worried Daughter,
One of the key principles of Crucial Conversations is to ensure you’re having the right conversation. That means not just that you’re talking about the right thing, but that you’re also talking with the right person. The first conversation you need to have is with your mother. If you are an adult child—unless you are an executor of your parents’ estate—you are not responsible for dealing with your father’s financial mistakes or misbehavior. Your mother is. If he is in financial trouble, she is the one he is affecting, and, therefore, is the one responsible to speak up, set boundaries, and hold him accountable for transparency.
In many families, the children get into a pattern of creating what psychologist Martin Seligman calls learned helplessness. They cultivate a family member’s inability to solve their own problems by rescuing them from uncomfortable challenges—like crucial conversations. Let’s face it, none of us relishes crucial conversations of the sort you’re describing. Imagine how ashamed your father might feel when confronted with evidence of his bad judgment or withholding information from your mother. Who would want to have that conversation?
What motivates any of us to step up in spite of our discomfort is experiencing the consequences of not having the conversation. When you step between others and their crucial conversations, you separate them from the consequences that would motivate them to develop the strength of character and competence required to build healthy relationships. In other words, we help them learn to be helpless. Your goal should not just be to solve this important problem, but to let it happen in a way that allows your parents to develop a healthier and more honest relationship. If you don’t, you could be part of the problem.
I urge you not to talk with your father, but with your mother and your siblings. Refuse to talk with her about problems behind your father’s back. Express your confidence in her ability to address her own problems. Offer to coach her or even practice with her, but avoid having any conversation with her where the intent seems to be to arouse your pity, convince you of her helplessness, or frame the problem as exclusively your father’s. If things are truly bad, they have become so as much through your mother’s passivity as your father’s stubbornness.
I know this is a much harder road to take than simply gearing up to talk to your dad. Trust me, I know this from very personal experience. But it’s my honest view of the right road to take.