Patti was getting tired of the complaining.
“How should I respond to my co-worker who always says she’s broke – and it’s probably because of overspending?” she asked me.
As I thought about Patti’s question, I wondered if her co-worker was calling out for help or just seeking sympathy – two very different things. Patti would have to dig deeper to determine what her co-worker was after: someone to help solve a problem or someone to support a harmful pattern of behavior.
The desire for sympathy often emerges from a person’s need to confirm that “their situation is worse than everyone else’s” or that “they’re the only one this is happening to.” People seeking sympathy aren’t searching for solutions or empathy. They are trying to confirm that they are unique and alone.
If Patti’s co-worker was after sympathy, I recommended that Patti politely change the subject or end the conversation by offering to talk again to seek solutions.
If Patti thought her co-worker was searching for help with a problem, there was much she could offer. First, because there is often shame attached to money troubles, Patti could start by listening emphatically.
In shame, researcher Brene Brown’s book I Thought It Was Just Me (But It Isn’t), she describes empathetic listening as the ability to be present and engaged so we can tap into our own experiences to connect with what someone else is telling us.
In practice this looks like:
Seeing the world as the other person sees it.
Being nonjudgmental – yes, this can be very difficult at times.
Understanding the other person’s feelings.
Communicating your understanding of the other person’s feelings.
Once you understand the person’s feelings, and he or she knows you care enough to truly listen, it’s possible to begin exploring real solutions.
For someone who wants to gain control of his or her finances but doesn’t know where to start, I recommend suggesting one or both of these books:
The Total Money Makeover: A Proven Plan for Financial Fitness, by Dave Ramsey.
Your Money Or Your Life, by Joe Dominguez and Vicki Robin.
Sometimes people know what to do, but need help doing it. Simple changes can be powerful. If this is the case, two starting points you can suggest are:
Writing down debts from smallest to largest. Then, each month, trying to pay extra on the smallest debt so it begins to disappear. This progress can be inspiring.
Creating one cash envelope – for groceries, restaurants, entertainment or a similar spending need.
If someone wants more than a book or tips about creating good money habits, you can suggest seeking professional help. This might look like:
Attending a personal finance class.
Hiring a personal finance coach.
Seeking help from an employer’s Employee Assistance Program, if available.
Listening and suggesting a course of action can open a door to real change for someone who wants help and is willing to choose what is right for them.