Ron McMillan is coauthor of four New York Times bestsellers, Change Anything, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Confrontations, and Influencer.
My mother-in-law lives in another state. She is rather close to her other grandchildren and I perceive that she treats my child differently. My daughter, who is eight years old, is overweight. My mother-in-law constantly reminds us of this under the guise of being helpful. For instance, sending me information on books for how to deal with overweight children. She also speaks rather harshly to my child, not at all in the way she addresses her other grandchildren. I didn’t say anything to my husband or daughter; however, my daughter has come to me wanting to know why her grandmother talks to her the way she does.
The fact that my daughter notices the way her grandmother responds to her validates what I had been thinking all along. How do I have that crucial conversation with her? Am I being too sensitive? Am I missing something in this story?
Favoritism. Preferential treatment. Inequality. In business and society, these infractions of basic fairness can be injurious and divisive—in families they can be devastating. You are NOT being too sensitive—you ought to confront them. The biggest issue is how to confront them in a way that increases the likelihood you will resolve the problem while maintaining the relationships.
Focus first on what you really want. It’s easy to identify what you don’t want. You don’t want your daughter to be hurt or sense that she is not loved or valued by her grandmother. You also don’t want your mother-in-law to be needlessly hurt or offended. I’m sure you want a loving relationship with your mother-in-law and you want a loving, accepting relationship between your mother-in-law and your daughter. You also want to eliminate unfairness and condescension in Grandmother’s dealings with her granddaughter.
Next, don’t judge your mother-in-law. It would be easy to assume bad motives on her part:
- She’s judging your daughter
- She doesn’t love your daughter
- She’s embarrassed by your daughter
- She thinks it’s her job to correct your daughter
- She thinks you’re a bad mother
If you embrace these stories, you are sure to create harsh, angry feelings in yourself. Those feelings, in turn, are likely to push you toward silence or violence and undermine your ability to get what you really want.
To escape these stories and judgments, ask yourself “Why would a reasonable, rational, and decent grandmother behave this way?” What are the possibilities?
- Could it be that she deeply loves your daughter and is concerned about the physical and emotional implications of being overweight?
- Could it be she is trying to be helpful in an ineffective way?
- Could it be that grandma is oblivious to the way she is treating her granddaughter—she doesn’t realize how she’s
- coming across?
- Might she be projecting some of her insecurities onto your daughter?
Of all these possible explanations, which is actually the case? The answer is: we don’t know for sure. Replacing any judgments with questions will create feelings of curiosity and concern instead of hurt and anger. You will then be in an emotional state more conducive to effective communication.
Now it’s time to talk. But what do you say? Let’s start with what NOT to do:
- Don’t start a crucial conversation with an accusation: “You don’t love my daughter!”
- Don’t start with a statement of emotion: “I’m so angry with you.”
- Don’t play games: “Do you know why I want to talk with you?”
These approaches almost always create defensiveness and move the conversation away from good outcomes.
To help make it safe, begin by sharing your good intentions: “I want to talk with you about your relationship with my daughter. My hope is to better understand what’s happening and avoid hurt feelings.”
If you do, your mother-in-law will be less likely to think you are trying to hurt her or blame her and more likely to listen and be open.
Next, factually describe the behaviors you have observed and tentatively share your concerns. Then, ask your mother-in-law to help you understand how she sees it.
“On several occasions, I’ve noticed you speaking to my daughter in a severe tone of voice. For example . . .” (Share several specific examples.) “I’ve never heard you use that tone of voice with your other grandchildren, and I’m starting to wonder why this is happening. My concern is that my daughter seems to be noticing it too and I think it’s affecting her feelings. Now, maybe I’m being overprotective or not seeing the whole picture. Please help me understand what’s going on.”
This is the time in the conversations to listen carefully. Truly try to understand her views.
If your mother-in-law seems surprised, share a few more specific examples so she understands the behaviors you would like to see altered. If she minimizes the importance of this issue, or shows no interest in modifying her treatment of your daughter, share with her the consequences you see resulting from her behavior (like your daughter’s pain and confusion and this problem becoming a wedge between you and your mother-in-law, etc.).
As your conversation proceeds, if you remain respectful, there is a high likelihood you will create greater clarity and mutual understanding. Be sure not to bring this conversation to a close without sharing your expectations for the future and asking for her agreement or commitment to comply. Avoid vague understandings. Identify the specific behaviors you expect to change.
“From now on, can I count on you to not speak to my daughter in harsh or severe tones? And can we also agree that if any correction is needed, it will be my role, not yours?”
Now, there’s no guarantee that approaching your mother-in-law in this way will get you the results you want. However, two ideas to keep in mind:
- Working with others using this approach is more likely to create good results and relationships than the methods most people use (silence or violence).
- Don’t think of this as a single, one-time only conversation—you are building relationships. Being consistently respectful over time and consistently seeking for mutual purpose will almost always produce mutually beneficial results.
All the best in your crucial conversations,