For many families, communicating with children about finances can be a challenge. Because personal vision and values can be inextricably linked to wealth, many parents are concerned about how to initiate a conversation about goals and intentions. We often work with clients who find themselves struggling with how to include their children in the planning process.

Recently we met with a married couple in their 50s who had been working with their advisory team to begin the estate and legacy planning process. Their four children are all adults, ranging in age from 23 to 31. Two are married and beginning their families, and two are single with one planning on a near-term engagement. While the parents were aware that it was wise to share their objectives with their children, they had concerns about when and how much to offer, as they worried about doing more harm than good.

These parents are not alone. While clients want to involve their children, they struggle with how to get started. Some of the most common questions clients ask include:

• How do we communicate with our children about our wealth without preventing them from finding their own way in the world?

• How do we help our children maximize the opportunities and minimize the inherent challenges that come with knowing you will be receiving wealth?

• How do we know when our children are ready to begin the conversation?

• How do we help our children understand that while we want to be fair, that doesn’t necessarily mean equal?

As families wrestle with these questions and more, there are some key distinctions that can make a big difference when tackling complex conversations. Parents are surprised at first, but then become relieved when we recommend focusing on the context before determining the content of what they will tell their loved ones about their plans.

Different Approaches Of Content Vs. Context
So often when we contemplate a conversation we have never had before, we focus our attention on WHAT to say, and wanting to do it the right way. However, while this focus on the content is important, it is misplaced if that’s where we start.

Instead, a better place to begin is with the WHY we want to have the conversation. By asking questions through the lens of “for the sake of what,” we can begin to clarify the values, beliefs and views that are guiding the direction of where we want to go. Spending time articulating the context first, and then allowing family members to share from their perspectives, will open the door for solutions to emerge that are aligned with the core family values and what matters most to all.

Here are a few basic tips for how to begin a conversation about wealth without talking about numbers:

1. Start with the end in mind. Before beginning a conversation, take time to envision the desired end result. Are people smiling and chatting easily with each other? Is there a relaxed sense of connection and ease of relating? Does everyone in the family have clarity about what the plan will be and why it matters? Is there a sense of inclusion and alignment, where everyone has expressed their opinion and has felt respected and heard? All of these questions are designed to assist in clarifying what is desired as a result of this communication. Once there is clarity on the intention and goals, it can be helpful to have a professional assist with determining the narrative regarding the choices being considered and why. Taking the time to write down intentions, hopes, concerns, values and beliefs will not only help with the desired messaging, but it will also inform trustees, beneficiaries and future generations of those words and wishes.

2. Check for understanding. One of the most common mistakes made when trying to communicate is the belief that the communication happens in the speaking. Actually, communication happens with the listener and in their interpretation of what is being said. When sharing information, make it relevant, go slowly and check with everyone present to get a sense for what they are understanding, as well as what key take-aways they are getting from the conversation. Rather than saying “does this make sense?” try something like: “What do you see here?” or “What did you learn from what we just shared?” This also helps to avoid disagreements and keeps the focus on shared understanding and learning together.

3. Give everyone a chance to share their thoughts, ideas, concerns and questions – you may find that this encourages all involved to think in new ways. Some best practices to promote engagement include:

• sharing the agenda ahead of time as a draft and asking if anyone has other topics to add;

•  having ground rules during the meeting, such as no interrupting; time limits (to allow the opportunity for everyone to share); and using a “parking lot” for topics that need further preparation;

• pausing frequently and asking for attendees to share what they are hearing and what thoughts and questions they have; and

• creating a safe space where everyone can speak freely without fear of repercussions.

Consider the family mentioned earlier. The parents worked with their advisors on their estate plan and concurrently worked with our team to clarify their letter of intent expressing their wishes and concerns. We prepped all their children prior to their family meeting and learned about their questions and concerns as well. During the family meeting, they participated in some activities together to clarify their family’s “code of honor” and purpose for their wealth, drawing from history, and focusing on future impact. As the parents shared their wishes and intentions, all their children were encouraged to ask their questions and share their thoughts.

One surprising result was that their youngest son was most interested in learning about investing, compound interest, and how to best leverage their family resources towards a community project he and the whole family were passionate about. Up until this point, he had been unengaged and avoiding financial education programs. The parents were thrilled and asked him to head up their family’s investment committee that would work with their investment advisor, as well as their philanthropy and impact advisors.

Families should take time to clarify the purpose of the conversation and learn best practices for how to discuss their concerns and possible solutions together. This will invite greater engagement and minimize the likelihood of negative outcomes. Starting with the “why?” will empower families to stop avoiding talking about money and to start having respectful, meaningful explorations into the kind of positive impact that money can have in their lives and in the world.

Annamaria Vitelli is head of PNC Private Bank Hawthorn. Emily Bouchard is head of PNC Private Bank Hawthorn Institute for Family Success.