Crucial Skills®

A Blog by Crucial Learning

Crucial Conversations for Accountability

Financial Family Feuds


Joseph Grenny

Joseph Grenny is coauthor of four New York Times bestsellers, Change Anything, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Confrontations, and Influencer.


Crucial Confrontations

QDear Crucial Skills,

I come from a close family. We’ve all had decent jobs and live comfortable lifestyles. However, since my brother lost his job a few years ago, he and his wife chose to sell their home and keep their toys (expensive vehicles, camper, etc). They now live in my mom’s rental and his new job does not provide a steady income.

Over the years we have given them plenty of financial advice; however, they’ve ignored most of it. They have used up their entire nest egg, live on credit cards, and are now sitting in huge debt. To help, my parents hand them cash or let them slide on rent.

The hardest part is they continue to attend every family event no matter the cost. As a family, we feel trapped—we wonder if we should stop doing nice activities so they won’t spend money they don’t have. But then we feel resentful because we wonder why we should go without when we’ve saved and worked hard.

Do we continue to let them tag along? Or, are we just enabling their behavior? Or, is this even any of our business? Do we downsize our activities to accommodate their bad financial management?

Sometimes the crucial part is knowing IF you should have the conversation! And if we should talk to them, what should we talk about?

Family Feud

A Dear Family Feud,

Let me first share a crucial principle to follow when trying to positively influence family members.

When you have a sibling caught in self-destructive behavior, the biggest danger you face is slipping from conversing to controlling. Before you do anything, you must Start with Heart. Strip yourself of any motive to “fix” your brother—or even your parents. When you can clearly see how people are either messing up their lives or enabling others to do the same, it’s easy to confidently believe you know what needs to be done and that by talking about it you’ll influence change. Talking isn’t the same as influence.

The one source of influence that will provoke others to change is personal motivation—an individual’s innate, intrinsic reason for doing things. One of the deepest personal motives we all possess is the motivation to control our own lives. We respond immediately and viscerally to any attempt by others to take control away from us. In many ways, we are control freaks.

So, to positively influence your brother, never cross the line from conversing to controlling. You can tell you’re crossing that line when you feel frustrated, when you lose your temper, when you nag, or when you manipulate. These actions will only provoke your brother’s need for control in a way that makes it less likely he’ll change. Oddly enough, when people have to choose between stopping a bad behavior that is ruining their life and demonstrating to manipulative friends that they are in control of their life—they often choose the latter.

Now for a word of comfort. The world is perfectly designed to help people become personally motivated to stop self-destructive behaviors. It does this by punishing them. You take drugs—you’ll eventually end up in a gutter. You spend foolishly—you’ll end up hungry. One of the primary reasons people continue self-destructive habits is because well-intended friends interrupt their learning by removing negative consequences. These friends don’t realize the tremendous damage they do by standing between people and the world’s powerful educational consequences.

So, one of the best ways to positively influence your brother is to not stand in the way of his learning. Don’t worry about speeding up change; just remove things that slow it down. Like your parents.

Now, everything above also applies to your attempts to influence your parents. Be sure you don’t move from conversing to controlling their actions to help your brother. You can’t change your parents. But you can get out of the way of the negative consequences they will naturally experience over time for their poor judgment with your brother.

So, here’s the tactical advice. You need to do three things. Two of them are conversations and one of them is a decision.

1. Have a crucial conversation with your parents. Express support of their ultimate judgment about what they should do as parents, but likewise, express your concern that the unintended consequences are far worse than the short-term pain they are relieving. Do not become self-righteous or panic if they don’t agree with you. Simply share your perspective, then promise to stay out of their business. However, offer your assistance should they want to talk about a different approach someday. You can be both honest and respectful of their agency.

2. Have a pattern conversation with your brother. You’ve already had the “content” conversation (financial management advice). Now it’s time to have a conversation about the pattern of dependency on your parents and others. Assure him that you see him as an adult and have no desire to meddle in his affairs. Your goal in the conversation is to point out a pattern he may not have noticed. You may offer to change the cost of family activities if that would help him—but only do so with his consent or you’ll have crossed the line to controlling. End this conversation with an invitation to offer counsel and coaching if he ever wants it. Then promise to stay out of his business so long as he doesn’t invite you in. Your new obligation is to let life do the teaching until he’s ready for your support.

3. Decide how to organize your life so you can be happy. Now that you’ve discharged your ethical responsibility to your loved ones, set up boundaries so you can live a pleasant life. That may mean doing activities without your extended family so you won’t feel resentful or tempted to limit your brother’s spending by manipulating the agenda. Excuse yourself from conversations where you’ll be tempted to intervene or offer judgments. Be sure you aren’t using these boundaries as a way to punish him—withholding friendship until he “changes.” That, once again, would be a control tactic. Express your love, but do so from a distance that keeps you happy and not feeling emotionally entangled.

I know from personal experience that the greatest test of our emotional maturity is in our efforts to be a positive influence on errant family members. And yet, I also know that, done right, these sacred relationships give us the most ennobling opportunity to change the world for the better.

I wish you all the best as you influence your family for good.


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