Al Switzler is coauthor of four New York Times bestsellers, Change Anything, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Confrontations, and Influencer.
Dear Crucial Skills,
I have been practicing my crucial conversations skills and found I actually used one the other night with my sister. She expressed her resentment to me about failing to consult her on a crucial family decision regarding our father’s health. Being a graduate of Crucial Conversations, I immediately recognized that I had unintentionally violated mutual respect. I did the right thing by apologizing for the incident, used a contrasting statement, and assured her it would truly be a family decision and I would not presume to make a crucial decision without consulting her first. She accepted the apology.
Here’s the rub. Although I said the right words, inside I was screaming mad at her for accusing me of this. I have resented her ever since and my behavior since then is hurting our relationship. Please help me master my story!
Dear Practicing Graduate:
Congratulations on practicing your skills. You used two skills well—you apologized appropriately and you contrasted. Both skills were used in a timely manner and established clarity and safety—conditions that made your sister feel safe enough to dialogue about your family decisions and your father’s health. And you ended the conversation with a third skill—determining who does what by when (Move to Action).
However, your lingering emotions and behavior are evidence that you avoided the real issues. I don’t know the details, but I’d like to pose a few ideas I’ve found useful in similar circumstances.
1. Make sure you get the right issue on the table. Your actions created safety for your sister; however, it takes two to dialogue and you did not deal with your own feelings. Let’s review three indicators of crucial conversation failure.
a. That little voice in your head won’t go away. You mentioned that “inside you were screaming.” This is a clue that there are other issues you need to address.
b. You start acting it out. Little voices quickly become powerful voices that can’t be contained and eventually leak out. Often, this shows up in subtle, non-verbal signals that hint at your resentment; next, they’ll show up in less subtle ways like gossip or sarcasm.
c. You have continuing evidence that you’re not getting the results you want. This could be your father’s deteriorating health, the faulty family decision-making process, or your poor relationship with your sister.
If any of these conditions exist, your crucial conversation is off track: The indicators should prompt you to look for the right conversation and then hold it. Which brings me to the next point.
2. Make sure you hold the right conversation. We identify three types of conversations:
a. Content: Decisions about your father’s health.
b. Pattern: Perhaps your sister is unavailable when decisions need to be made and while you wait for her to get involved, you are forced to wait and worry—and it’s wearing on you.
c. Relationship: Perhaps the real issue is that you and your sister have argued over most everything for years and you are carrying the scar tissue of too many wins and losses—the decisions about your father’s health are merely the most recent battle ground.
I don’t know what the real conversation you need to have is, but I do know that until you talk about the real issue, you won’t reach much resolve. Also realize that sometimes finding the right conversation means being honest with yourself.
3. Master your story. We teach people to ask three important questions when mastering their story. These questions will really help you in this situation.
a. “Am I pretending not to notice my role?” Could your own actions be causing your emotional suffering? Sometimes the more tenaciously we stick to a story or an emotion, the more we do things to justify those feelings.
b. “Why would a reasonable, rational and decent person do this?” This is my favorite because it helps me avoid jumping to conclusions and encourages me to bring up issues in ways that foster dialogue. Might some of your sister’s behaviors be caused by love, worry, or the vivid memory of her father-in-law’s failing health.
c. “What is the right thing to do right now to move toward what I really want?” What do you really want? Do you want more credit for your efforts to care for your father? Do you want more autonomy in making timely decisions? Do you want your sister to do more? Do you need to repair some lingering damage in your relationship? What could you do to get to the real issue?
Again, congratulations on using three crucial conversations skills. Hopefully, I’ve shared at least three more ideas that will help you take the next steps. Your situation has reminded me that life doesn’t have a cruise control—it takes effort every day.