Career & Success

Love & Money: How to Talk About Big Decisions Together

In this podcast episode, Myra Strober and Abby Davisson share a framework to help us communicate professional goals with those we care about most.

January 12, 2023

| by Matt Abrahams Myra Strober Abby Davisson

Do love and money mix? Labor economist and professor emerita of economics at Stanford Graduate School of Education Myra Strober says “absolutely.”

“Separating money and love is not a good idea. I have had 40 years to think about this, and, in my class at the GSB on work and family, each semester I realize how important it is to intertwine love and money.”

In this podcast episode, Matt Abrahams sits down with Strober and social innovation leader Abby Davisson, MBA ‘08, to discuss the thorny topics of work, money, career, and love. In their new book, Money and Love: An Intelligent Roadmap for Life’s Biggest Decisions, the coauthors provide a framework for communicating in and around tough decisions with those we love. These may include caring for aging relatives, expanding your family, changing careers or moving.

“If you are in a relationship, maybe you have kids or other people living in your household, the first thing you need to realize is that your career decisions are going to affect the whole ecosystem,” Davisson says. “It’s very important not just to clarify what you want, but to anticipate and think about the impact on those around you.”

Think Fast, Talk Smart is a podcast produced by Stanford Graduate School of Business. Each episode provides concrete, easy-to-implement tools and techniques to help you hone and enhance your communication skills.

Full Transcript

Matt Abrahams: Our lives are full of decisions, both professional and personal. Where it gets interesting and potentially tricky is when both our professional and personal decisions collide. Today we’ll learn how communication can play a critical role in helping navigate these issues. I’m Matt Abrahams, and I teach Strategic Communication at Stanford Graduate School of Business. Welcome to Think Fast, Talk Smart, the podcast.

I’m very excited to chat with Myra Strober and Abby Davisson. Myra is a Labor Economist and Professor Emerita at Stanford University, where she was among the first female professors at Stanford GSB. She was the founding director of the Stanford Center for Research on Women, now the Clayman Institute for Gender Research. Myra studied gender issues in the workplace and the economics of childcare.

Abby is a social innovation leader and career development expert. She holds master’s degrees from both the Stanford Graduate School of Business and Education. Abby served as President of the Gap Foundation and co-founded the company’s Employee Resource Group for parents. Together, Myra and Abby just published their new book Money and Love: An Intelligent Roadmap for Life’s Biggest Decisions.

Welcome, Myra and Abby. Thanks for being here. I am super-excited for our conversation.

Myra Strober: Well, thank you.

Abby Davisson: So excited to be here.

Matt Abrahams: Great. Let’s jump on in. One way we define our lives is through the professional and personal decisions we make. We often get advice to not let money concerns influence our decisions about love, and never to allow love to influence our decisions about money. Myra, your new book is titled Money and Love. I assume you’ve thought about this advice and might have some opinions on it. Is it good advice?

Myra Strober: No, it’s not good advice at all. Separating money and love is not a good idea. I have had about 40 years to think about this. And in my class at the Graduate School of Business on work and family each semester I realize how important it is to intertwine love and money. Love decisions, although people fight against this sometimes, love decisions do involve money. If you want to know who to marry, if you want to know how many kids you’re going to have, all those decisions involve money.

And money decisions involve love. When are you going to retire? Are you going to have enough money to retire? What career are you going to pursue and how is that going to affect the rest of your family? All money and love intertwines.

Matt Abrahams: So we have to consider both when we make our decisions.

Myra Strober: You do.

Matt Abrahams: So, Abby, you and Myra provide a five-step framework to help us make complex, challenging life decisions. Can you share this framework and explain why is it so helpful? How does it work?

Abby Davisson: Well, no two decisions are alike. As you said, they’re complex, they’re thorny. And so we wanted to create a flexible, but sturdy framework that could be applied to a number of different life decisions. Is this the person I want to spend my life with? Do we want to have kids together? Do we want to continue pursuing our careers while we grow our families? All the way through how do we care for our aging relatives. So our framework has five steps. And I’ll talk about them at the high level, and then we can go deeper in a couple of them. So clarify what’s important to you. Communicate with the people involved. I know that’s near and dear to your heart.

Matt Abrahams: Yes.

Abby Davisson: Think about a broad range of choices. Check in with trusted resources. And consider the consequences.

Matt Abrahams: I love that it’s easy to remember, five Cs. And as those who listen to the podcast know, I’m a big fan of frameworks and structure. So I do look forward to drilling down a bit. And, of course, I want to drill down on the communication step of your framework.

Myra, you both recommend opening up a two-way dialogue with those involved in the decisions we are contemplating. Do you have advice on how to initiate these conversations? I can imagine that this can be very difficult if the decisions we’re contemplating run counter to the expectations the other folks involved have. For example, delaying marriage, or starting a family, seeking to move to another job or a location. What advice can you give us?

Myra Strober: Well, the first piece of advice is don’t startle the person that you’re about to communicate. You know, you have just finished dinner. One of you is still clearing the dishes off the table. And all of the sudden you say, “I’m thinking about a new job.” That’s not the best way to communicate. Much better is to say, “There’s something really important I want to talk with you about. Can we carve out a little bit of time tonight? Or if not tonight, can we spend some part of Saturday talking about this?” That would be my first piece of advice on communication.

Matt Abrahams: That’s really helpful. My wife and I often joke that we both do this to each other. We’re so busy during the day we don’t have time to think. So right as we’re going to bed we’re like, “Oh, yes. We need to talk about this.” And we both feel relieved that we got it off our chest, whatever it was, but then the other person lays awake at night staring at the ceiling thinking about what does this mean. So taking the time to be thoughtful about when you have the communication is really very, very important. Thank you.

We’ve talked about that a bit when we talk about giving feedback, as well. The timing of that is really important. So, Abby, when it comes to your checking in step, what guidance can you provide on how we can get honest and helpful input, feedback, and advice from those who are close to us? I fear that our closest friends and family might simply tell us what they think we want to hear, rather than what they really believe.

Abby Davisson: It’s a good point. And part of it is actually how you frame the check in stuff. So it’s one thing to go to a trusted friend our resource and say, “What do you think I should do?” And that’s not what we advise. It’s very helpful to hear examples of how other people have approached these decisions. So if you’re trying to decide what type of job you should take you can ask someone, “How did you [make] your decision about your career?”

Or, for example, when my husband and I were trying to decide whether to move in together after we graduated from the Business School, we talked. Actually we did research for our final paper in Myra’s class and talked to four other couples who had lived together before they got married. Three of whom had successful outcomes and were still together and one who wasn’t. And we checked in with them about their approach, how they thought about finances and that helped us inform our own approach.

Matt Abrahams: So how you frame the question really matters. And then doing some focus grouping, it sounds like, and going out and testing or checking with those who have been through that before can be helpful.

Abby Davisson: Certainly.

Matt Abrahams: That’s really good advice. I need to make sure that I remember that. I find myself often in the moment, so impacted by the emotion I’m feeling, or the worry our concern I have about the circumstance that I often am not as rational as I think your framework suggests we should be. And I think that’s really helpful to pull myself out from that.

Abby Davisson: Well, it’s human nature. These are such big decisions. We’re so in it. We don’t like uncertainty as a species. And so we want to get to the other side of the decision as fast as possible sometimes. But what the framework does is provide an approach that helps you slow down your decision-making and gives you a way to feel more confident that you’re covering all of the bases before you get to the other side.

Matt Abrahams: Yeah. That pacing and perspective, I think, are really important. And I appreciate that in the framework you’ve provided. We’ve talked about conflict, influence, and negotiation many times on this podcast, but I’d love to get your take on ways to navigate some typical life decisions that many of us face. So, Myra, I’m curious. What guidance would you provide couples considering marriage and/or having children?

Myra Strober: Well, in my experience when people think about communication they think about talking. And they think about what they’re going to say. And they forget that the other half of communication is listening quietly and carefully and attentively. And especially for tough decisions.

The first step our framework is clarify. So before you get into the communication you want to be clear on what it is you want. But then you want to learn what the other person wants. And, hopefully, if you and the person you’re communicating with have done this frequently, each of you knows that the first step is to clarify your own beliefs. Beliefs, wishes, whatever it is. And if not, as the communication begins you might say to your partner, “You know, I think maybe before we talk about this it would be good if you went back and thought about this by yourself.”

So now assume both of you have thought. This is like a dance. So now you both come to the dance and you’re ready to clasp hands and waltz around the floor. Now you may each change your mind as a result of listening to the other person. So then you have to go back and clarify again. And maybe your partner has to go back and clarify again. Then you come together. So this requires patience. This is an ongoing communication about very, very critical issues.

Matt Abrahams: I really like that metaphor of a dance. Because for a dance to be successful and enjoyable both people have to work together. And although I don’t have really good rhythm, nor am I a good dancer, you really do have a pace and a timing for things. And I appreciate the advice to be clear on what it is you’re asking for and to be patient. I also heard you say you have to be willing to be adaptive and change as you learn more information.

Abby Davisson: Yes.

Matt Abrahams: Really, really helpful. So, Abby, let’s change more to talk about career. How should we be thinking about proposing a major career change with our partner? I’m thinking about things like quitting a job, moving to a new location, taking on more responsibility and more work time. How should we think about those situations?

Abby Davisson: The first thing to realize is that those decisions if you are in a relationship, or maybe even have kids or other people living your household, that your career decisions are going to affect the whole ecosystem. And so it’s very important not just to clarify what you want, but to anticipate and think about the impact on the others around. If you’re about to take a job that requires extensive travel, that is a huge impact on the other people who will have to pick up the slack when you’re not there.

So it’s critical to engage in these conversations in a way that provides the space for everyone to voice their concerns, their hopes, their dreams. And I find, personally, that getting out of the day-to-day, so actually leaving the house with the piles of laundry and the dishes in the sink, is really critical. My husband and I have had really important conversations actually. We both just made big career changes. And some of our best conversations that led up to these changes happened on hikes. So we would go out on the weekend. We’d let our kids run ahead of us.

I remember one conversation where he had just left his job as the CFO of a tech company and he was getting headhunted by recruiters for other CFO jobs. And he said, “I don’t know. I’m getting these calls. Should I take them?” And I think he kind of expected me to say, “Sure, go for it.” But I said, “I don’t know. Do you want that? Based on what you’ve shared before it doesn’t seem like that’s something you’d be too excited about.”

And he said, “You’re right. I feel dread when I think about taking those calls.” The lesson there is don’t assume that the other person is going to react one way or another. But being in a natural setting, having the space and ability to think broadly about was so important to us making those big moves for our careers.

Matt Abrahams: And congratulations to you for making those moves. What I’m hearing is perspective matters. Your perspective considering everybody else who is engaged or involved in these circumstances. I like the ecosystem model that you talked about. But also being open to somebody else’s perspective in that communication and not just expecting they’re going to say one thing versus the other. And place matters. I love that you do a lot of your intense communication outdoors on hikes. I think it’s hard to be embedded in the environment where you have your day-to-day routine to talk about things that are not day-to-day or routine. So thank you for that.

Many of our leaders are managers and leaders in organizations. Abby, what advice to you have for them to better support their employees’ work and personal relationship needs?

Abby Davisson: Well, managers have such a tough job right now. They are balancing a lot. They’re managing up, they’re managing down, they’re managing sideways. And a lot of them are burned out. I think it’s really critical for everyone, but particularly managers, to think about the whole person. And what’s going on in their life outside of work may affect what they need to be able to do their best work. And ask questions. Create an environment where they feel comfortable bringing up some of those needs, so that you can best create the conditions to support them.

And I’ll give you an example. In my job at the Gap we ran a program called This Way Onward that helped young people with barriers to getting jobs; get a food in the door, and a way in and a way up into the workplace. And there was one store manager who hired a young man and he was late to every shift. And she could have just fired him and said, “You know what? This didn’t work out.”

But instead she got curious and she said, “Hey, I’ve noticed that you’ve been late to every shift. Can you tell me a little bit more about what’s going on?” And he said, “You know, my dad works the overnight shift. My mom passed away. And my dad really depends on me to get my younger brother to school. And I have to take two buses to do that, and then take the bus back. By the time the last bus leaves, I can’t be here for the start of the shift.” And she said, “Oh, so if we shifted your start time a few hours would that be better?” And he said, “Yes.” And then he became her star employee.

And so that example illustrates that rather than having a kneejerk reaction and just saying, “This isn’t working,” getting curious and finding out what’s underneath some of the challenges could have a really transformative impact.

Matt Abrahams: I think the advice for managers to be curious is really powerful. And the other thing I heard you say is you have to set up an environment where people feel comfortable sharing what’s going on in their personal lives in the workplace. Because many of us don’t. And it is incumbent on leaders and managers to help people feel safe and comfortable doing that. I wish when I was younger I had more managers that did that.

Abby Davisson: Don’t we all?

Matt Abrahams: Yes, yes. Before we end I’d like to ask you both the same three questions I ask everyone who joins me. Are you up for that?

Myra Strober: Sure. Go for it.

Matt Abrahams: All right, here we go. So, Myra, we’ll start with you. If you were to capture the best communication advice you have ever received as a five to seven word presentation slide title, what would it be?

Myra Strober: Listen and tread lightly.

Matt Abrahams: We heard you mention those a little earlier. And I can see how important they are. So listening is very clear. And that has become more and more of a theme on this podcast about communication, is how important listening is. Can you remind us and give us a little more detail on the treading lightly?

Myra Strober: Well, this example comes from my class, actually. There was a fellow in the class who had a lot more business experience than most. And we were talking about maternity leave. We hadn’t yet come to the world where we talked about maternity leave, but this was maternity leave. And he was very proud to say that when he was a manager he encouraged all of his women employees who came to him and said they wanted maternity leaves to take the longest maternity leave possible. And that he would go to bat for them and get them the longest maternity leave possible.

And one of the women in the class, who was not shy, said, “I’m glad you were not my manager. I don’t want a long maternity leave. I want the shortest maternity leave I can possibly have so I can get back to work as soon as possible.” He was shocked. And in the course evaluation he wrote that this was the most informative part of the class for him. And he realized that he had to listen. That he couldn’t just assume that his employees wanted one thing or another. And so I think the listen part is so important.

Matt Abrahams: Right. And then what I hear in the tread lightly is you can assert or you can ask. Right? And by asking it’s a little more tentative and you can learn more from that. And that’s really powerful. So I’d like to move to question two, and we’ll start with you, Abby. Who is a communicator that you admire and why?

Abby Davisson: Well, I am a big Peloton person, so for me Robin Arzon, who is the first instructor and now does a lot more a Peloton, is very impactful. She is authentic, she is confident, and she makes me feel really good about myself when she’s making me work real hard.

Matt Abrahams: So a lot of inspiration and motivation. Of all the people we’ve talked to and asked this question, nobody has mentioned a Peloton instructor. But they are absolutely motivational. I have done some Peloton and I absolutely agree, very good communicators. Myra, can I ask you the same question? Who is a communicator that you admire and why?

Myra Strober: Well, my answer is probably more common. I admire Oprah. I love to watch her interviews. I think she really listens.

Matt Abrahams: Yes.

Myra Strober: And she takes people wherever they’re at and makes you understand that it doesn’t matter whether you agree with the person you are interviewing or not, you need to help the audience understand where that person is coming from. She does that. She’s vulnerable. She talks about herself. She lets you know about herself. She asks great questions. She’s my model.

Matt Abrahams: Amazing communicator, for sure. In my Strategic Communication classes we’ll use her as an example. The part there that I want to highlight is she connects the audience to the people she’s talking to. And that’s really, really important in communication. Thank you. All right, our third and final question. Abby, what are the first three ingredients that go into a successful communication recipe?

Abby Davisson: I think the conditions are so important. So the idea of getting in a place where you are physically able to communicate, emotionally, mentally. All of those pieces really matter to set up a good communication. The second I would say is to give grace to the other person that you are talking to. Don’t make assumptions, tread lightly, and give them the benefit of the doubt.

And then the third, I think, is to have patience. These big life decisions don’t need to get solved overnight. And it may take a number of conversations. And you might have to come back to the topic because things are getting heated. And that’s okay. Good communication doesn’t always look pretty and elegant. It can get messy and awkward and uncomfortable and that’s real. But having faith that you’ll get to the other side of it together is important to the recipe.

Matt Abrahams: So many important things there. What I took away immediately was this notion of good communication can be, and in some cases should be, messy. And from that you can get some honest, really clear results. And the idea of making sure you’re in the right place and that you give yourself and your partner grace is really, really important. This has been phenomenal. Thank you, Myra and Abby. Your five Cs framework is incredibly helpful. I’m already thinking about how I can apply it here in my work, but also at home. I’ve got a wife, I’ve got teenagers, I’ve got aging parents. This framework can be really helpful, not just for me, but to everybody listening. And I wish you great success on your new book, Money and Love: An Intelligent Roadmap for Life’s Biggest Decisions. Thank you.

Myra Strober: Thank you.

Matt Abrahams: Thanks for joining us for another episode of Think Fast, Talk Smart, a podcast from Stanford Graduate School of Business. This episode was produced by Jenny Luna, Ryan [Campos], and me, Matt Abrahams. Our music was provided by Floyd Wonder. For more information and episodes find us on YouTube, or wherever you get your podcasts. Thank you, and please make sure to subscribe and follow us on LinkedIn.

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