Al Switzler is coauthor of four bestselling books, Change Anything, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Confrontations, and Influencer.
Dear Crucial Skills,
At a large family gathering, my four-year-old son threw a temper tantrum wanting his cake and ice cream in a bowl rather than on a plate. My wife told him he could have the dessert on the plate as it was served or not at all. Seeing my son’s dissatisfaction with this arrangement, my mother-in-law stepped in with a bowl and loudly stated, “This is my house, and I am his grandmother, and if my grandson wants his dessert in a bowl he can have it in a bowl.” The whole room went silent as Grandma transferred the dessert to the bowl.
I wish my wife had stood up for herself, but old patterns are often hard to break. I also wish I had stood up for my wife and my son. Unfortunately, I am ashamed to say, I reverted to silence (this was before I read Crucial Conversations). This behavior is not a pattern for my mother-in-law, so I am not sure if this is worthy of a crucial conversation. She can be strong in her suggestions but rarely as forceful as she was on that day.
Would it have been appropriate to have a crucial conversation with my Mother-in-law at the moment of her behavior, to reverse her directive back to my wife’s? If so, can you give some suggestions?
A frustrated son-in-law
The key question here is one that haunts many of us: “To speak or not to speak?” In Crucial Confrontations, we devote a chapter to this question. The chapter is entitled “Choose WHAT and IF: How to Know What Crucial Confrontation to Hold and If You Should Hold It.”
The steps we teach about knowing WHAT to confront can be summarized quickly. Masters of these skills get the issue clear in their minds by “unbundling” it—they determine if the issue is one of Content, Pattern, or Relationship. Content deals with the specific or original problem. Pattern is the reoccurrence. And Relationship deals with factors such as trust or respect. Figure out which of these is the real issue here.
The question is not only what you should confront, but if you should confront and whom you should confront. There are several people in this situation you could consider.
The person you focused on primarily was your mother-in-law. You mentioned that the issue with the ice cream was not a pattern. However, you also mention that you wish your wife would stand up for herself. That suggests a pattern. Does your mother-in-law intrude, interrupt, or dominate in ways that are a pattern—regardless of the content? Do you need to talk to her?
We offer a few questions that can help you decide if you should speak up: Is your conscience nagging you? Is that little voice in your head frequently whispering—or yelling—“There it is again! That is so unfair! Doesn’t she realize what she’s doing?” Next question is, are you acting it out? Do you talk about your mother-in-law when she’s not there? Do you withdraw or avoid her? Have you ever seen her name on the caller ID and not answered it while at the same time laughing like some fiend in an old movie? Okay, I’m exaggerating for effect, but you get the point. If you are answering yes to any of these questions, you should probably speak to her.
Next is your wife. Maybe you shouldn’t speak up to your mother-in-law. Maybe you should coach your wife. Does she complain about her mother’s behaviors or actions regularly? Does she “bite her lip”? You could coach your wife about speaking up. You could help her unbundle the issue and decide whether to talk about Content, Pattern, or Relationship. If what has you concerned is her not speaking up, talk to her.
Third is your son. He possibly also has a pattern of behaviors that is of concern. He’s just four, but that’s old enough. You can have a talk with him. How would you do that? You would use the same skills that you would use with your mother-in-law or your wife. Use all the skills that help you deal with what’s crucial. Make it safe—keep it private and don’t go into the talk having pre-judged or being emotional. Start with the facts: “I’ve observed this…” “this is what I expect…” and end with a question: “Can we talk about this?”
Remember that if you don’t talk it out you act it out. There are many ways to deal with these issues. You can balance candor with courtesy. You can build safety and have honesty. There are learnable skills that can help all of us improve to address the issues that matter most in our lives.