Starting the conversation: Going from "we need to talk" to actually talking

By Dr. Emily Heath

Conversation can be hard

If you’ve ever hosted a dinner party, you’ll probably have had at least one moment of panic when faced with the dreaded lull in conversation, where no one seems to be able to do more than muse “some weather we’re having, eh?”

Even under conducive circumstances, with food and wine flowing, it can be occasionally hard to promote free and easy conversation. When faced with a taboo topic like money, and particularly in a more impersonal environment like a classroom or in a bank, starting a conversation can feel downright impossible.

For this reason, it’s perhaps unsurprising that despite the clear link between conversations and financial wellbeing, many financial education initiatives don’t include strategies to help participants build their capability to have money conversations constructively and with confidence.

Luckily, this trend is starting to change.

Around the world, more and more practitioners are recognising the importance of having the skills and confidence to have conversations about money. In Germany, the Institute for Financial Services has developed the SchülerBanking program, which is built with the intention of giving students the skills to confidently and competently navigate interactions with financial service providers; in Chile, researchers have designed successful financial interventions that involve peer support groups where participants share their financial goals and behaviours; in New Zealand, talking about money is now a key pillar of the nation’s Financial Capability Strategy. In Australia, Good Shepherd Microfinance requires participants who receive a no-interest loan to have a money conversation with a professional as part of their application process. They’ve found that financial capability peaks at the point of the financial conversation.

Four easy steps

So, if you’re designing a financial education program, what can you do to make conversations easier for your participants? Try these four things:

  1. Acknowledge the taboo. For many people secrecy about money is so ingrained at such an early age that they are not even aware of it. Getting participants to reflect on their beliefs, values and upbringing around money can help them to understand and question their reluctance to talk. As they say in AA, the first step in recovery is acknowledging you have a problem!
  2. Give people a chance to role play. A key builder of self-efficacy (that is confidence in your ability to achieve a specific task) is mastery experiences – having the chance to try and succeed at a task. Giving people the ability to role play financial conversations in safe environments, is likely to quickly build confidence. In Germany, students are actually taken into banks and roleplay conversations with bank staff to accurately simulate conversations with financial service providers.
  3. Create new role models. Social learning theory posits that we learn behaviours from each other, imitating the behaviours we see others perform. Many of our (sometimes unhealthy) financial behaviours are learned at a young age, often from our parents, including our money taboos (though a process called financial socialisation). Ensuring that your program has engaging, aspirational role models that demonstrate confidence and ease discussing money can create new norms and behaviours for participants to model.
  4. Change the social context. We are social creatures, and many of our decisions are determined by the social context that we find ourselves in. Running interventions that are designed to influence not just an individual, but the social group that individual finds themselves in, can be key to embedding behaviour change. Studies have shown, for instance, that providing education to both an individual and their families is more effective than providing education to individuals alone. Interventions that address the taboo of money conversations at a group level, are likely to have a larger impact than interventions that don’t.

Building financial capability and wellbeing is complex. But focusing on giving people the skills and confidence to talk may be an important first step!

This is the second post in a two-part blog series that examines the importance of financial conversations. This post provides some practical strategies to build financial interventions that teach people to have constructive money conversations.

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