Dear Crucial Skills,
I am the eldest of six siblings. We grew up in a judgemental atmosphere and avoided confrontation, so “triangulation” occurs frequently. NO one, parents included, is willing to address the issues, but they are always willing to share it with the person whom they think will help fix it–that would be me. I have tried to stop, but at times of stress I fall into the fix-it mode. In the meantime, we continue to communicate in this dysfunctional manner, afraid to speak the truth, afraid to speak directly, and forever judging without just cause. Where do I start?
Your question is full of places I could start, but I’m going to share a few comments on where YOU could start.
1. Diagnose by asking the “Humanizing Question.” That question is: “Why would a reasonable, rational, decent person act this way?” This question can help us be patient and look for possible reasons for why people we care a lot about act in ways that are counterproductive. Sub-questions include: “In what ways might it be more complicated or complex than I see it?” “Have I ever done something like this and if so, what were my reasons?”
In this particular case, it seems like the pattern of avoidance is a family tradition. During the years, what started as not wanting to offend probably stemmed from your family members believing they couldn’t confront each other because they weren’t good at it. Many people avoid or triangulate not because they want to, but because they don’t think they have the skills. Sometimes they don’t think they have the skills to start; but more often, they don’t feel they have the skills to deal with objections or emotions that will surely come out. So they avoid. What does this have to do with your starting point? By diagnosing and asking this question you will be more patient and refrain from attributing bad motives to your family members.
2. Get your motives right. This can be accomplished by asking the question: “What do I really want—for me, for family members, and for my relationships?” Too often people only look for what they want and that frequently can lead to actions that are interpreted as selfish and short-term. “I want to cope; I want to stay in my comfort zone; I want someone else to fix everything.”
Asking all three parts of this question will help your motives become mutual and long-term. In this case, what do you want for you? To not have to carry messages for other people or engage in gossip? What do you want for your family members? To help them rapidly and respectfully solve problems so everyone escapes the consequences that accompany avoidance? And what do you want for your relationship? More communication, less judgment, more sharing, less stress? Get your motives right and then start a conversation.
3. Start with safety. This of course is the hardest part. The key to safely sharing your thoughts is to diagnose and focus your intentions. Let me explore a couple of issues. First is privacy. It may be that you talk privately with your father, then your mother, then your siblings. This may help them feel more comfortable discussing the issue–they won’t feel the need to “perform” for the audience. Feel free to bring this up with your family all at once if it seems like safety is intact.
4. Use “contrasting.” Share what you don’t intend and do intend so you can remove any misconceptions up front. For example, say to your father, “I’d like to share an observation I’ve made about how the family communicates. My intention is not to be critical; what I want to do is try to understand and see if there are some ways we could improve. Would that be okay?” If your father gets defensive, revisit your intentions—what you don’t intend and what you do intend.
5. Lead with an observation and a question. Beginning with conclusions and emotions and destroy safety. Compare the two approaches. Bad start: “Dad, has our family always been judgmental and cowardly?” A better start: “Dad, I’ve noticed that as a family, we have a pattern of avoiding some issues until they create stress. For example, we avoided talking about the proposed Holiday gathering until people were complaining about the arrangements but not talking to Mom about her proposal. And then it exploded. Can we talk about this and how to make things better?”
Of course once you start, you need to continue. For guidance on what to do if the other person side-tracks you, or disagrees, or gets emotional, refer to Crucial Conversations. The steps in the book will walk you through this conversation to the end. I’m confident that if you start off on the right foot, the rest can go smoothly.