All posts by Joseph Grenny

Crucial Conversations QA

When Money Gets Between Family Members

Dear Joseph,

Four years ago, I gave my savings to my brother, so he could open a business. I was hesitant because he has a temper and communicating with him can be tricky, but I went ahead. My mother-in-law also invested. Recently, I wanted my brother to repay some of the money, but asking for money has become very uncomfortable. He would ask me to accept small payments, then would take forever to get them to me. So I lied and said my mother-in-law wanted some of her money back, knowing he would respond to her more quickly. I got caught in my lie. Now my brother refuses to speak to me. I have apologized for lying. But I also feel it’s not all my fault. I lied to get access to my own money because communicating with him is so hard. My brother has told me to “have a nice life.” I want a chance to explain why I lied. Now he won’t let me. What should I do?

Signed,
Bad Debt

Dear Bad Debt,

You’ll want to sit down when you read this. I’m going to talk to you the same way I talk to myself: with a heart so full of love that I’m not going to hold back on what I think you need to hear.

The problem here is not your brother, it is you. And your path to progress is to simply accept the reality you’ve created. Here is the truth as I see it:

  1. You kissed your money goodbye when you gave it to your brother. You’re now blaming him for behaving in exactly the way you knew he would when you gave it to him.
  2. Yes, you read that right. I used the word “gave” not “lent.” You didn’t loan it, you gave it. Resentment is a sign you are not setting or maintaining boundaries. You knew before you handed over the cash that you should have a financial boundary with your brother. But you sold out. You knew he would try to manipulate you with his anger if you said no, so you gave in and loaned it to him anyway. Your resentment is guilt turned outward. It won’t get resolved when your brother repays you. It will get resolved when you listen to its message: you are responsible for saying no when you feel like saying no. And if you say yes anyway, you are responsible for the consequences.
  3. If he pays it back, it will be on his terms. Since you failed to set clear expectations when you handed over the money, you are at his mercy for how he chooses to repay it. If you are unwilling to talk to him to establish terms now, you surrender the right to feel resentful. It is pure self-deception to hold expectations that he did not agree to.
  4. Your lie is all your fault. It is not a shared transgression. It is a solitary one. You decided to deceptively hide behind your mother-in-law rather than speak your own truth. He has every right in the world to mistrust you now. Is it possible that he is using your lie to assuage his own guilt? Of course. But that doesn’t change the simple moral story: You lied. End of story. No justification. No turning it back on him. No mitigating circumstances. So give up hoping he will co-sign your rationalization.

If you want to get right with yourself and right with him, here’s the path forward. You have two conversations you need to have with your brother. You can do them at the same time—but be clear that they are separate issues. One does not soften or strengthen the other.

Conversation 1: I lied. “I’m sorry.” This one is short and sweet. “Brother, I was a coward. I was trying to get my money back from you and I lied because I didn’t have the courage to be direct. I don’t blame you for being angry at me about that and for not trusting me as a result. I hope one day to demonstrate that I am no longer that person and that I deserve to be trusted again.”

Conversation 2: What promise are you willing to make about repaying my money? “Do you agree you owe me the money? If so, what are you willing to commit about repayment? And what consequences are you willing to accept (e.g. late fees, etc.) if you don’t abide by those terms?”

Even if he agrees he owes the money and commits (in writing) to repayment terms and consequences for noncompliance, you should still heed my final advice: let it go. Chalk this up as a lesson learned: family and lending rarely mix. And they NEVER mix when the relationship is already unhealthy. His relationship with you may have been unhealthy, and yours with him definitely was.

If you’re truly daring, use this alternate Conversation 2: “I forgive you of the debt. I don’t want you to pay me back. I should not have loaned it. And I handled the process badly in many ways. That is my lesson to learn. If you choose to pay it back, give it to a charity not to me.”

Your money is gone. I hope you get your brother back.

Sincerely,
Joseph

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