Category Archives: Relationships

Being a Good Debtor

debt burdenPart of being in business is that clients owe me money. And part of being an accountant is acting for clients when they owe money.  So I regularly get to play on both sides of the debt equation: being both Creditor (they owe me) and Debtor (I owe them).  This piece is about how to manage  things well as a debtor – how to be a Good Debtor.

For most people being in debt is incredibly stressful. Our culture sees debt as bad: we talk about the ‘debt burden’, and the ‘debt trap’. Having a mortgage is seen as a kind of moral negation: signing the mortgage is to “sign one’s life away”.  Understandably in this cultural context, not being able to pay your bills brings up feelings of shame, anxiety, embarrassment and fear.  These emotions can make it really hard to act simply with self-compassion and clear communication.

Understanding Power

There’s several things, though, that can really help.  First is understanding power.  When you “go delinquent” on a debt, i.e. you don’t pay when you should, suddenly you have a lot of power.  In effect you hold someone else’s money, and you are saying you won’t give it to them.  You are, at one level, unilaterally tearing up the implicit contract you and your creditor agreed to initially when they agreed to supply you and you agreed to pay.

If your creditor is a corporation, then there’s not much emotional charge involved. But debt collecting for corporations is costly – staff, lawyers, communications resources, collection agency fees etc etc.  They’d rather not be doing it. Your power in the situation is forcing them to spend money on something that’s not actually their core business.

If your creditor is HMRC or any tax authority, the situation is slightly different. You have the added power of being able, potentially, to draw public scrutiny if you are creative and energetic enough.  HMRC is constantly (and quite rightly) under scrutiny, and is sensitive to this as an organisation.  It has a whole set of standards it is obliged to stick to in dealings with taxpayers – and you can at any moment publicly claim it is not doing so.

If your creditor is a small business, then your power is much more significant.  Your creditor may be sole operator – in which case it can easily seem personal to them.  They fear that you’ve just pulled a power move by saying you’re not going to give them the money which is rightfully theirs.  This power aspect is a huge contribution to the difficulty and very high charge around debt collection particularly for small creditors.

Actions

So far and away the most important thing you can do to be a good debtor is to clearly acknowledge the debt.

Because of the shame and fear which often comes up when you can’t pay your bills, it’s incredibly tempting to project your own emotions back on to your creditor by blaming your creditor in some way: their service wasn’t very good, or their invoice is wrong, or late. Or they didn’t give what you specified. It goes on and on.

If any of those things actually are true, then they need to be addressed as issues in their own right.  And they are not the same as the issue of acknowledging the debt.

Clearly acknowledging the debt makes it clear to the creditor that you are NOT unilaterally throwing out your mutual contract. Rather, you wish to honour the contract, and there is a much more specific and much smaller issue, which is that you just can’t pay at the moment.

By far the best way to acknowledge the debt in practice is to be proactive in your communication. Don’t wait for your creditor to chase you.  As soon as you know you can’t pay on time, get on the phone to them, email them, text them – whatever.  This indicates more strongly than anything else that you care about them, that you are aware of your debt and you want to clear it.

This works even with large corporations and government bodies.  Even though you’d only be dealing with a functionary with, in theory, no emotional investment in what you do, that person will be making notes on your file, which all build up a picture of you as a good debtor – someone they don’t have to worry about.

Even if your situation is dire, e.g. you’re not going to be able to pay for maybe a year or more, large organisations would rather put your file in a holding tank for a long time than take legal action against you – because legal action is costly, with an almost guaranteed eventual failure if you have no money. So why would they throw good money after bad.

The same is true of the small operator too:  their best bet is to try to accommodate you and support you to improve your situation.  But small operators get much more antsy, because they are much more vulnerable to your power.  If you and they have no personal connection or are not connected via community, then they have no information about your integrity.  There is the constant doubt in their mind that maybe you’re just having them on, or that you are not reliable.  So small operators need more frequent reassurance that you care about your debt to them.

What is incredibly reassuring here is that you do what you say you will do.  It doesn’t matter how bad your situation is, or how long you will take to pay.  If you say you will do something then do it.  This says “integrity” more strongly than anything else.  That’s why it is much much better to be realistic in assessing what is actually likely in the near future for you with money, and much better to be honest with your creditor about what you can and can’t do.

Summary

Being in debt is not a bad thing in itself.  At one level, when dealing with other small businesses, it is an opportunity to use your potential power as a debtor to strengthen community by drawing on the support of others. And, as in any power play, doing this takes attention and care and respect.

Being unable to pay your bills does not need to be emotionally dramatic. It can simply a situation to encounter – and it can be encountered with competence and ease with these basic steps:

  • Clearly acknowledge the debt.
  • Be proactive in your communication.
  • Be realistic about what and when you can pay.
  • Do what you say you will do.

Getting Help

For most people, dealing well with debt is a new set of skills.  So it’s great to get help while you’re learning.

You can talk with me about your feelings and attitudes, and we can develop possibilities and build concrete strategies.  And I can negotiate on your behalf in certain conditions.

And there’s loads of free help. Here’s four excellent starting points.

 

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On “Closing the Sale”

01-pushy-salesmanRecently I was on the receiving end of the sales technique known as “closing the sale”.  This is where a seller elicits several “yes” responses from you and then keeps narrowing the conversation to the point where you say “yes” to whatever they are selling.

Ironically, they were trying to sell a program of coaching around business development, marketing and – yes! – selling.  At the start of the conversation I was very open to their program and what they had to offer.  By the end I was fuming!

You might say this conversation was simply an example of a poor salesperson.  But what else is “closing the sale” than an attempt to shift a potential buyer from “maybe” to “yes”?  This is of course a quite legitimate shift to make – but one that needs to be made by the buyer and not the seller!

But more interestingly, is what the technique of “closing the sale” says about the seller’s attitude to their product and to their clients.  All or only some of these may be true side by side:

  • a deep ambivalence on the seller’s part about the value of what they are selling.  They believe that the value is not apparent, or perhaps not really there at all. Closing down the conversational space reduces the buyer’s scrutiny of  the product.
  • overriding anxiety about issues internal to their business: meeting sales targets, or keeping busy, or pleasing a supervisor, or simply paying the bills.  These things are not the buyer’s business.  They could be very real for the seller, and the seller could potentially share them simply as a human being – but not by smuggling them in to the buyer/seller conversation!
  • the seller views the potential buyer as not fully capable.  The seller often sees their role in the sales conversation of “assisting” the buyer to make the key shift to “yes”.  In other words the seller believes the buyer is not capable of making this shift unaided, not able to make a clear decision for themself – an incredibly insulting belief.
  • the seller views the potential buyer as an object.  The seller really has no interest at all in the buyer as a real person, and simply wants the buyer to comply with the seller’s agenda.

Of course “closing the sale” works fine when you are just selling widgets, or a one-off experience – like a fairground sideshow for example.  You take the buyer’s money, they get the goods, and you never have to see each other again.  The value of what is sold is only momentary anyway, and who cares if the transaction is interpersonally messy?

“closing the sale” is closing off the path to real connection, and thus shutting down an opportunity

But I am selling an intimate service.  Although accounting is not generally seen as intimate, in practice it involves the client disclosing things that sometimes they don’t even tell their spouse, and on occasion have never told anyone.

As with lawyers, doctors, and the sacred professions*, my service works best when the client feels safe to be entirely authentic.  This safety is generated partly by me being appropriately open and boundaried in the interaction myself, and partly by according the client the respect that they are fully capable, that their process of living is fully legitimate as it is, and that their decisions are entirely right for them in the moment.

Of course I don’t always measure up in practice to this standard I set for myself – I, like everyone, am on the path of growth.  But it is my intention to move towards appropriateness and respect with clients at all times.  It would be impossible for me to commence working with a client on anything less than that basis.

“Closing the sale” is the antithesis of what works in my business. Were I to pursue it I would feel obliged to continue my distant, disrespectful or inappropriate stance with my client, because that is what they signed up for.  Or I would need to put a lot of effort into cleaning up the mess left by ‘closing the sale’ – apologizing, and establishing a new basis to proceed. Either path involves an enormous amount of energy which needn’t be spent if one simply doesn’t use the “closing the sale” technique.

What DOES work is simply having a chat.  In that conversation it becomes clear what is the quality of connection between me and the potential client. And then if the connection supports it, we sort out what we can go forward with, and how to do that.

In contrast, “closing the sale” is closing off the path to real connection, and thus shutting down an opportunity for me to help empower others around money and thus to contribute to my community’s social capital.

* The Sacred Professions are “… professions in which the value delivered is something
intangible.  Musicians, artists, prostitutes, healers, counselors, and teachers…” Charles Eisenstein, Sacred Economics, p203

I’m so successful, my business is disappearing!

As my third tax season in London kicks off, I’ve just had a run of established clients emailing me saying “I’ve done my 2014-15 figures; can you just have a look over them?”

Success!

I’ve been working with these clients for 2 or 3 years doing Tax Coaching – working with them around their records, bookkeeping and tax.  And, hey – they’re really getting it together!  It usually takes 2-3 cycles of doing something to really learn it, and so it makes sense that my more established clients are building competencies and starting to stand on their own feet.

2015-09-21 12.47.02But also – oh damn!

I’m only going to get £60 out of them this season instead of a few hundred. The model I’ve had for my business has been to build up a stable of really great clients, everyone gets their needs met and we can all have a really great time as I devote myself to our gradually evolving working relationships.

I was getting close to that goal, but now my business is disappearing!

I hadn’t counted on the larger implications of my central guiding principle in working with clients: empowerment.

Empowering clients around tax, or Tax Coaching, is all about making sure they have appropriate SkillsKnowledge and Attitude to do their own tax. We work together in a circular fashion, cycling through all three areas over several tax cycles, with a mix of encounters with their feelings, practical exercises with records and numbers, and straight information on tax law. Gradually the client comes into a new relation with their tax return, as they build a new story about themselves as capable and confident to do what’s necessary, and have this story affirmed by their new experience.

I just love this process. I love being involved in the actuality of it.  I love the resulting change for the client.  And I really deeply love contributing these things to my community.  One of my dreams is to live in community in which money doesn’t represent power, or status, or worth, or legitimacy. Where money isn’t used as a stand-in for personal boundaries or a way to insulate us from our vulnerabilities. A community in which money is simply a tool, no more and no less important than other tools, and the majority of people feel easy and competent about doing whatever they do day-to-day with money.  A community in which, when a new project is conceived, people don’t go “what a great idea but, oh we can’t do it – we don’t have the money.” But rather people go, “oh yes that’s worth putting effort into. Now let’s get the resources together we need for it and create it.”

Moving towards this dream involves developing attitude, skills and knowledge, as I said.  But by far the biggest of these is attitude: the stories we hold and the feelings we have about money. Even when clients have the skills and the knowledge, what hangs around the longest is their story that tax is hard, money is hard, I’m no good with numbers, etc etc. I’ve heard several times in the last week from newly empowered clients “I was surprised how easy it was to do my tax.”

Every client who experiences this transformation of their experience with tax then carries that embodied knowledge with them as they move through their life and interact with others in the community. They no longer carry the tension of fear, shame, anxiety – or whatever it was – within themselves. And when they encounter those tensions in others they can say “ah, you feel that; yes – and you don’t need to you. It’s possible to become empowered. There is another way to be around tax and money.”

And maybe, too, having learned how to handle tax as just an ordinary thing like tying your shoelaces or doing the washing up, maybe their relationship with money might change in other ways too. They might feel more confident to track the money in their business more closely, and come into a more confident and affirmative relationship with how their business generates that money.  Through this they may feel more able to share their unique gifts with the community, and thereby enrich both themselves and the community.

In short, empowerment around tax can have ripple effects beyond the individuals who are becoming empowered. And this possibility excites me – hugely!  The more people I can empower around money and tax, the more social capital my community has. And the more ease, and pleasure.

So maybe my business isn’t disappearing after all. Maybe it’s morphing from an accounting service for individuals and small businesses into a community development project around money…

Money, relationships and physical survival

As children we are socialised into connecting money with physical survival. This is culturally specific – other cultures connect physical survival with the community and/or the land or spiritual beings. But in Western cultures (and many other cultures too) having no money brings up deep fears about not being able to survive.

In the West money is a key index to the distribution of physical resources. In many cultures, people live within networks of gift and obligation, where physical resources are distributed according to the web of obligation relationships which ensure the whole community’s wellbeing. In contrast, Western culture sees people as “individuals”: atomised entities which have no necessary connections with each other, and whose interactions with each other are arranged as contracts between two “parties”.  Fulfilling the contract i.e. supplying the goods and receiving the money, finalises the relationship – it “cleans out” any obligations between the two parties.

Money is also something you can “have”, can accumulate and store.  Physical resources and social participation are accessed by “having” money – money is a gateway or entry condition for these things.  So in the West access to basic physical resources and social participation are highly conditional – they are not seen as a birthright by virtue of being alive.

Even though this is horrifically harsh at one level, at another level this commercial or “contractarian” approach was historically a massive step forward.  The benefit of inserting money into the community web is that it allows radical freedom i.e. it allows people to pursue life paths outside of the community’s norms. It means that individuals are not obligated to participate in the tightly woven kinship networks which are “traditional” i.e. they work by maintaining large areas of shared values and perspectives deriving from what’s worked in the past.

So in the West we have the freedom to do anything we want, as long as we are prepared to “govern ourselves” i.e. as long as we are prepared to comply with the basic game of generating money for ourselves (and some other things).  The 19th and 20th centuries saw this ethos gradually become established as the Western cultural norm.

Two quite unrelated developments in the last 30-40 years are now prompting some new directions.  Firstly, the dawning of “aquarian consciousness” or the “New Age” has seen the development of a wholly new set of technologies of selfhood and relationship. Building on the prevailing emphasis on individualism, these new technologies support us to become increasingly anchored in a self which is more internal and less reliant on external anchors such as marriage, job, money, and family.

Secondly, the rise of neoliberalism and globalisation has stripped away the last remaining vestiges of the pre-modern fabric of community, and thrown us in to the fully contractarian neoliberal “free market” in which “choices” proliferate as long as they are economic choices, and we must engage with these “choices” because there is less and less social security.

Increasingly people who are working with the first (i.e. a more internally anchored self) are questioning the amoral and impersonal basis of the second, and are asking “how can we do things differently?”

The opportunity is clear:  it is possible to reduce our need for money if we involve ourselves more in community relationships.  This is not to say we can do away with money entirely.  Rather, we can reduce how much money we need each week by sharing more, co-operating more, and being involved in more community activities.

But this goes against our Western heritage as individuals with radical freedom – and as a result increased co-operation and sharing challenges us at a very deep level.  We can meet these challenges and go through a profound transformation of self by becoming adept with the New Age technologies of self which enable us to successfully engage in relationships by being even more “selfish” or self-anchored than is customary in the modern West.

The change specifically around money which is enabled by this transformative self-work is to gradually loosen our socialised deep emotional connection between money and physical survival, and to harness some physical survival needs to relationships and community.

An example of how this can work is in house sharing. Many people share housing because they can’t afford to have a place on their own. In other words, what most people really want is their own place, their own home.  Sharing is largely seen as a necessary evil or a step on the path to something “real” i.e. their own home.

This view is based in the belief that it’s not possible to really feel “at home” with people who are not “family” (or perhaps not with people at all). Most people in house shares “put up a front” when dealing with housemates, and of course this takes effort.  But what if we could be “really ourselves” with our housemates? What if our housemates also wanted to do that?  What if we used these new technologies of self to build relationships with housemates which are not “family” in the conventional sense but are nevertheless intimate enough that we come to feel deeply “at home” i.e. safe to be our real self in their company?

This transforms a house-share situation from a burdensome or awkward arrangement which must therefore be only temporary into something which is deeply nourishing and therefore sustainable indefinitely. “Home” is neither “family” nor an onerous necessity through economic lack.  “Home” segues into “intimate community”.

What makes this possible is technologies of self which enable us to expose our vulnerabilities to a far greater extent because we are also able to set boundaries when we need to.  For most of us most of the time, personal boundaries and ours sense of safety are maintained by a collection of common social arrangements which are part of the structure of our lives. We live in spaces defined by physical walls which cut off interaction; we move between episodes of social interaction which have clear endings; we engage in contractarian exchanges which are completed; etc.

Rather than relying on structural aspects of situations to maintain our personal boundaries, a deeper connection with our inner world enables us to detect our safety needs “on the fly” and to communicate those to our companions in ways which enable us to stay safe AND stay in connection.  This means that the episodic nature of interactions which is currently largely organised for us by the structures in our environment no longer need to occur for reasons of psychic wellbeing or personal integrity.  Episodes of interaction end for purely physical reasons – you want to go to place X while I go to place Y.  Or I want to spend 1-2-1 time with you, then you, then you.  Even though we are physically separated the sense of connection can continue, the openness to that person or people continues internally, and thus psychically we stay in relationship.

In this context, sharing physical resources becomes simply a matter of practical organising rather than coded negotiations around personal boundaries.  Financially this is an enormous benefit since in our affluent society there are vast quantities of physical resources available around us all the time which are inaccessible to us simply because of relational difficulties.  But in practice the vast majority of those physical resources lie idle most of the time or are used for only a short time before being discarded.

There is a huge world here to explore.  House sharing is only one example – obviously it can be applied in many areas of life.  Of course there’s many reasons to explore what’s possible in relationships – not just to do with money!  And there are many doorways into it.  Our relationship with money is just one doorway in, and the questions I ask in relation to money are: how do you organise your physical survival? And how do you arrange your social participation?  Making shifts in either of these areas brings up our “stuff” about money and about relationships and, ultimately, our “stuff” about self.  And that’s where the work begins!

The Pleasures of an Intimate Accountant

me in conversationAs your accountant I get to know the intimate details of your financial situation. But there’s also another type of intimate connection I enjoy even more with my clients.

One of the richest aspects of accounting for me is that being someone’s accountant brings me into a very intimate connection with that person.  In British (and Australian) culture, talking about personal finances is often uncomfortable – it’s not a topic of polite conversation.  Money is something we usually only discuss in detail with one’s spouse, or perhaps one’s parents or adult children.

In this way an accountant is in a similar position to a doctor: the professional examination involves revealing “warts and all”.  Obviously the accountant can’t do their job without all the relevant information – but I always feel a little frisson at the moment when the client starts to tell me the detail.  It is, in a psychic sense, very much a moment of “undressing”.

I deeply value my clients revealing themselves to me in this way. I feel it is a very vivid demonstration of trust.  Even though I know most people routinely interact with professionals of many sorts who require us to share our “secrets”, each time a client does this with me I feel it is special, and deserves acknowledgement, and respect.  It really is a relationship of vulnerability: my client is vulnerable to the extent to which I caringly respect what they have confided.

But in my approach to my work this intimacy and vulnerability is not just one way.  All my clients are people for whom their work or their business is a creative expression of their soul – just as my own business is for me.  Thus although there is a client-practitioner relationship, there is also another level of deep mutuality:  we share values around authenticity and creativity, and around the challenges involved in being true to ourselves and earning a living.

Sometimes this comes out in snippets of conversation where we discover a shared passion around some element of business operations.  Sometimes it comes out in drawing on personal growth principles to help us address an issue in the business. Sometimes I need to tell them I am triggered by aspects of their profession or their business.  Sometimes it will come out in what appears to be a rambling natter about something else – which then suddenly and unexpectedly crystallises for the client a vital aspect of their business focus.

I share with my clients a vigorous belief in disclosing all this personal stuff, in allowing the emotional and the seemingly-unrelated.  Often the wisdom of our lives comes out to affirm the other, to support the other and to validate the path we are already on. Together we hold a trust that the connection between us is right, that it is powerful, and that our connection generates what is of mutual value to us no matter what it’s content looks like.

This is what Kimaya Kroller-Younger calls Radical Intimacy. The attempt to accept all of what is there in oneself enables us to be more deeply with ourselves.  This in turn enables us to be deeply with others.  Of course we get scared, of course the acceptance is never complete.  But the edges where we stop are also moments to honour the courage it takes to go right up to the edge.  And often that edge can shift simply when it is accepted – by ourselves or by another.

Having created an intimate openness, our work together can then proceed as a collaborative project. They need their tax done, or their admin dealt with, or to know how their profit is going – whatever it is.  I ask if they want to get skilled up themselves, or whether they just want it taken care of.  The project can be anything, and of any duration.  Then we discuss what needs to be done to complete the project, what our skills and respective time constraints are, and then decide who does what and when.

The work proceeds well because we have created an intimate connection.   We have each brought ourselves present – not necessarily in our entirety but very much authentically in the moment.  Our beings resonate intimately with each other – and this enables a smooth working-together.

Last week I had several days which seemed to be a continuous dance of wonderful encounters with clients interspersed with work on collaborative projects.  By the end of the week I felt so full, so blessed to be in connection with such rich beings, and blessed that I have the opportunity to use my abilities in our mutual service.

Truly – the pleasures of an intimate accountant.

Relationship wisdom we can learn from Accounting

Accounting systems make the very sensible assumption that we are human – which means that mistakes are inevitable.  No real human ever does things perfectly. Entry errors, mis-readings, absent-mindedness, distraction all actually happen – not because anybody intends to make mistakes but just because Life is Life and shit happens.

So one of the most powerful steps in the accounting cycle is to check for errors.  The process of “reconciling the accounts” or “doing a reconciliation” involves using a third party’s record of transactions to cross-check your own records.  Most commonly the third party’s records is a bank statement, but accountants will also use the records of customers, staff and suppliers – any party which has dealings with the business and which has a separate or ‘third party’ accounting system.

The reconciling process allows us to locate mistakes, identify how they arose and then fix them.  Because accounting systems get reconciled there is no penalty for mistakes. People don’t get blamed.  Mistakes just get located, identified and fixed.

The same pattern is relevant in relationships as well.  Relationships involve humans, and so inevitably mistakes will be made.  I will hurt you, you will invade me, I will disregard you, you will insult me. Very seldom are these things intended. Mostly we intend to do the best by the other person.  So when I make a mistake it’s not because I’m stupid, or I intended to hurt you, or I don’t really care about you, or any one of the million reasons you can make up.  I made a mistake because I’m a human.

What Accounting teaches us is it’s not important that the mistake has been made.  That’s just inevitable.  What’s important is that there is a system in place to catch the mistakes and fix them.  In other words what’s important is doing the reconciliation.

The reconciliation process involves a third party to me – which in the case of our relationship is you.  You, or your actions, alert me to a mistake having happened. Something’s off in our interacting, and that’s a signal that stuff needs to be attended to.  So we need to identify what the mistake is, and then fix it.  We can do this without blame for the mistake happening in the first place.  Removing blame is a hugely freeing step, which allows us to have much more clarity, and to work together to identify the mistake and to work out ways to fix it.

There’s another possibility here, though: it might not be my mistake.  I’ll use Accounting again to clarify.  Those third parties whose records we rely on to reconcile our own accounts also have their own accounting systems, and so they also make mistakes.  Most banks put a little notice somewhere on your bank statement saying something like “please check all these transactions to make sure you agree with them.”  This is not just marketing fluff – it’s a core part of their own accounting system.

So when I’m doing my bank reconciliation I’ll find a mistake. I check and re-check my own system, using the bank’s records, and after a few iterations I find that the mistake is not mine but the bank’s.  Bingo – I have to tell the bank.

The same possibility occurs in a relationship.  I may feel you’ve done something terrible: I feel really hurt, and so on.  But the only thing we can say with certainty at first is that a mistake has been made.  If I’m reconciling my accounts I tend to assume that the mistake is made by me.  When I’m feeling hurt in a relationship I tend to assume the mistake has been made by you.  But this may not be so.  It takes the first step of a reconciliation process – a back-and-forwards of active listening without blame – to identify exactly what the mistake is.  Only then is it possible to agree on how to fix it and carry out the fix.

Not only does Accounting show us that mistakes are inevitable.  It also shows us that reconciliation is normal.  It doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong in a relationship. Reconciliation is just a normal, routine and standard part of any good relationship.

I love it that there is such similarity between accounting systems and human relationships.  It affirms to me that The World is a fractal pattern, which occurs everywhere.  We are inside the pattern, the pattern is inside us, and the pattern occurs in its entirety in every single aspect of what exists.  Everything is intimately connected.