Joseph Grenny is coauthor of four New York Times bestsellers, Change Anything, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Confrontations, and Influencer.
Dear Crucial Skills,
I have a son who I need to have a crucial conversation with. At twenty-one, he is living at home and working part time for a fast-food chain. He has drifted in and out of community college classes and lacks direction and ambition.
We are two completely different personalities–I am very organized, serious, and high-strung. He is very laid-back, social, and unconcerned with his future. My goal is to see him be self-supporting and able to live on his own. Although he says he wants to move out and not live with his parents, I do not see him making any efforts toward that goal. When I ask him to sit down and talk, I feel as if I’m talking to a brick wall.
Please, I need help in helping him to move forward with his life.
I’ll focus my advice where I think you are—having held half of a crucial conversation and needing to step up to a crucial confrontation.
You have already spoken with your son about general goals, direction, and aspirations. That half of the crucial conversation has gone fine. You’ve concluded that he has some vague ideas about what he wants. But they sound more like fantasies than plans.
You also need to hold the other half of the crucial conversation. You’ve shown a sincere interest in his goals. But you haven’t asserted your own. There are things you want. You want him to make progress. You want him to move out on his own. And—if you’re like many parents—you’d like to move on to the next phase of your life.
Sometimes parents fail in their crucial conversations with their children because they are unwilling to acknowledge that they have needs and wants. Don’t make that mistake. Be absolutely committed to hearing what your son wants—and supporting it—but absolutely clear that you are a party to this conversation. Otherwise you perpetuate the infantile view babies have that they are the only real entity and everything around them exists to serve them. This is fine when your only aspirations are eating and sleeping, but as we get older we also need to learn to accommodate the needs of others.
So, tip number one: Finish the crucial conversation. Assert what you’d like to see happen. Let your son know that as long as he is making measured progress toward what you mutually agree on, you are happy to play a supportive role (i.e., let him live at home). Make clear agreements. Agree on who will do what and by when. Also agree on specific times when you will talk again to let him report progress against your agreement.
That’s where the crucial confrontation comes in.
Tip number 2: You need to follow up on the commitments. Hold him accountable. Do it lovingly. Do it politely. Do it patiently. But do it firmly. As you are keenly aware, you’re doing this as much for him as for you. Nothing stunts maturation more than parents who are unwilling to let their children experience the natural consequences of their own actions. And endlessly subsidizing a son who is not self-reliant is a common form of this unwitting collusion.
If you really want to help your son, holding him accountable—even to the point of requiring him to live in temporary squalor—may be the most loving thing you can do. And if you use the skills of Crucial Confrontations well—you’ll even do it in a loving way.