Dear Crucial Skills,
I have read Crucial Conversations and greatly enjoyed it. However, I’m having difficulty knowing what to do with my mother-in-law when she makes snide remarks in group settings about me. We’ve had discussions before where she has blown up emotionally, and I don’t want to cause a scene. Do you have any advice?
Walking on Egg Shells
It’s easy to recognize a crucial situation when I hear one, and what you have described certainly fits the bill. My coauthors and I can identify with people like you who sometimes get stuck, don’t get the results you want, or suffer from diminished relationships. These dismal results and emotional consequences are what propelled us to find solutions in the first place. It felt crucial when we started doing the research and it feels just as crucial today.
So let me aim at your question by sharing some of the basics.
When we observed people who were very skilled at working through issues like the one you are describing—whether at home or at work—we continually noticed that the masters always started in the same place: with themselves. Thus came the skill, “Work On Me first.”
There are several core questions that help people work on themselves first. A good question to start with comes from “Master My Stories.” You’ll need to ask yourself: “Am I pretending not to notice my role in the situation?” Now I am not saying you have a role. Nor am I saying that something you have done has played a role in upsetting your mother-in-law. What I am suggesting is that it’s wise to start here.
Often, our role in the matter has more to do with what we didn’t do than what we did. For example, we didn’t speak up for months or years, we didn’t find a safe moment to describe what we saw, we are guilty of “not-so-subtle” nonverbal signals, or we avoid spending time with the person. In other words, we have failed to address anything, we have withdrawn from everything, and we are taking no responsibility in our contributing role to the crucial situation. So, ask yourself the question and if there are some steps you can take, invitations you can make, or apologies you can start, that is a good first step.
The second basic is to make sure it’s safe. Three quick bits of advice here:
1) Work on the conditions of safety. No one, including your mother-in-law, wants an audience. So make it private. Find a good time to bring up your concerns and initiate a conversation—one that’s not near a blow up or a dicey interaction.
2) Make your intentions clear. We teach this as “contrasting.” Contrasting is a statement that clarifies what you don’t mean and what you do mean. Clarify that you are not trying to be a critic. What you are trying to do is understand some actions you’ve seen from her as well as find ways to improve and, if needed, repair your relationship.
3) Check your motives to make sure that you truly are trying to understand. Often, as we walk into a conversation, the first thing to arrive is our facial expressions or subtle tone of voice—and it says: “I want to talk, but oh, by the way, I have already found you guilty.” This is not a good start. What needs to arrive first to the conversation is your good intention, accompanied by mutual purpose and mutual respect.
My last little bit of advice is don’t wing it. Practice with your spouse. Practice how you will start the conversation. Practice answering tough questions. Even practice handling “blowing up.” When things are crucial, practice is vital.