Joseph Grenny is coauthor of four bestselling books, Change Anything, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Confrontations, and Influencer.
The following article was first published on October 26, 2005.
Dear Crucial Skills,
My husband travels for business quite often. Recently, he left for a conference a few days prior to the actual event. I know for a fact he was not there to entertain clients ahead of time. He called me during the conference asking if I could transfer money into his account because he spent all his budget money at the bar. This has been a recurring issue with his spending, and I think he needs to change jobs. I’m tired of being responsible for paying the bills and buying the groceries out of my budget money while he is out with his friends. How do I approach this with him?
Dear Over Budget,
Whatever you do, do not try to solve this problem by taking control. If you do, you will enable the very behavior you are trying to influence.
Most of us so loathe having crucial confrontations that we’ll do anything possible to avoid them. Some of us just withdraw and complain. Others take control. For example, attempting to force solutions on others that we think will resolve the root cause of the concern.
In your case, you sound tempted to influence your husband to quit his job. While his job may be contributing to his budget excesses, if you take responsibility for forcing that solution on him, he is likely to reject your advice and take even less ownership for the real issue.
The real issue here is that he is violating his agreements with you. It is not that he is spending a lot of personal money on business trips. You must be clear on that distinction; otherwise, when you raise the concern he will be likely to focus on spending patterns between the two of you.
So my first piece of advice is to focus on the right issue: You have lost trust in your husband’s willingness to keep his agreements with you.
Second, make sure you don’t undermine your ability to have this conversation by acting it out rather than talking it out. Avoid the temptation to check up on him, control the bank account, make sarcastic comments, or withdraw approval or affection in order to compel him to comply with your desires. In the public realm we say that your success in a crucial confrontation is predicted by how safe you can make the other person feel. At home I’ll be even more direct–your success in this crucial confrontation will depend on your ability to influence him through an undiluted mixture of absolute love and absolute honesty.
Making it safe is not just about skills used in the conversation. You could think about the skills we teach for conversational safety as tools for maintaining situational respect. These skills ensure that while you’re talking to your husband, he knows that you care about his needs and problems and also that you respect and love him.
Another part of safety is relational safety–this is the safety, affection, and respect that he feels from you on an ongoing basis. You will have no more influence with him than you have ongoing safety in your relationship. So be sure you are regularly maintaining the warmth and affection in your relationship.
Having done that as best you can, you must now be completely honest with him about (a) your desire to have a wonderful marriage with him, and (b) your unwillingness to have a relationship where someone is dishonorable in his agreements.
If you open the conversation with safety–that is, a demonstrated commitment to having a terrific relationship–you will be much more likely to then have a searching discussion about why he is breaking his agreements. Explore all the reasons he is doing this. Jointly develop solutions–which may include changing his work situation–to help him keep his agreements. But ensure that he is responsible for helping develop these solutions, not that you are compelling him to agree with them.
If you focus on the right conversation, keep the relationship strong, create safety in the conversation, and explore the many possible reasons for the problem, you are likely to have a positive outcome.
If you’ll allow a final philosophical comment–I firmly believe that none of us achieve our potential as human beings except through relationships where others love us enough to challenge us to improve ourselves. So, the conversation you’re preparing to have is not evidence of a bad relationship; it’s evidence that you’re attempting to achieve what your very relationship is for.