Crucial Conversations QA

Weighty Conversations at Home

Dear Crucial Skills,

My eighteen-year-old daughter is beautiful, with lots of talents and a cheerful personality, but in the last two to three years she has become quite overweight. I know this is making her unhappy, but every time I attempt to talk to her about it, we end up in an emotional conversation. How do I have a crucial conversation with her regarding this sensitive issue?

Concerned Mother

Dear Concerned Mother,

Having a conversation with your eighteen-year-old daughter about being overweight is an especially crucial conversation because being overweight can be attached to a complex variety of issues and relationships.

You said you know her weight is making her unhappy. Is the fact that she is overweight a symptom of her unhappiness or the cause of her unhappiness? Is it a health issue? Is it a self-esteem issue? Is it comfort eating because she’s lonely or is it due to peer pressure because she can’t say no to her friends when they use sugar and chocolate as their drugs of choice? Is it due to not wanting to lose weight or an issue of not knowing how?

You mentioned that when you bring up her weight, you end up in an emotional conversation. Does your daughter feel like you are trying to control her life? Is she happy with her weight but feels you are rejecting her because of it? This is a tough conversation—especially when your daughter is sensitive about the topic—because it’s difficult to anticipate where it will lead or how you can be of help to her.

As parents, we see our kids struggling and we want to help in the worst way, and that’s often exactly the way we help—the worst way. In this case, the worst way is to ignore an issue that is affecting your daughter’s happiness. A close second is to nag or preach to your daughter about her weight. It seems to me the key to this conversation is to make sure your intentions are good and to communicate those intentions to your daughter in a helpful, transparent way.

First, before you even open your mouth, examine your motives and get your heart right. Get a blank sheet of paper and answer these questions:

“What do I really want to come from this conversation?”
“What results am I trying to achieve?”
“What relationship do I want to have with my daughter?”

Be honest with yourself and answer the questions truthfully. Why is her weight a problem for you? Does her appearance embarrass you? Are you afraid she won’t attract someone and you’ll never get the grandkids you’ve always wanted? Are you afraid your daughter’s weight reflects on you and means you are a bad parent?

Now, these may sound silly, but sometimes in our most honest, reflective moments, we realize our intentions are mostly about our issues, not the other person’s. If you realize your motives are hurtful to the other person, you are not ready to have the crucial conversation with him or her. If this is the case, work on your own issues before involving your daughter. If, on the other hand, you recognize that what you really want is to help your daughter, be a resource to her, and contribute to her happiness in a way that strengthens your relationship with her, then you’re ready to begin.

Start by sharing the facts as you see them, and check out your assumptions or story with a question. For example, “Becca, you’ve seemed a bit down and unhappy. You’ve also made sarcastic remarks about gaining weight. Are these two issues connected? Are you unhappy about your weight?”

Be tentative in both your observations and your conclusions. Don’t make accusations. Don’t use labels.

If you get a defensive or emotional response, listen and check for understanding by asking a question or mirroring her response.

Maybe she says: “I don’t want to talk about it, just leave it alone.”

You might try: “Why’s that?”

If she responds with: “Because it’s none of your business!”

Try mirroring: “Do you feel I’m intruding where I don’t belong?”

She comes back with: “Why can’t you just let me live my life?”

As you gain insight into how your daughter is viewing your relationship or your motivation, share your good intentions. How do you know what your good intentions are? Because you listed them when you asked yourself, “What do I really want?” Your answers are your intentions. Now just share these with your daughter. A very effective way to do this is with a contrasting statement. Contrast what you don’t want with what you do want.

Try this: “Becca, I’m not trying to meddle or control you. I’m not trying to intrude. I just want you to be happy.”

Sharing your intentions does two things. First, it clarifies your motive so she doesn’t misunderstand and second, it suggests a mutual purpose—your daughter’s happiness.

If the concerns she shares about your motives are true, admit it. If they are not true, share your good intention by contrasting to clarify the misunderstanding.

For example: “I’m not embarrassed by your weight. I’m not judging you. I just want you to be happy with yourself.”

Or: “I’m not saying I’m smarter than you. I’m not saying you’re irresponsible. I’m just trying to say that what you’re doing doesn’t seem to be working for you.”

Because you respectfully listen and make an effort to create mutual purpose, you are creating the two conditions that make it safe. And if your daughter feels safe with you, she is more likely to be open and you will be able to find ways to help her. Your help may be as simple as listening and helping her sort things out, or it might be as active as helping her enroll in a gym and paying for her trainer. Whether your help is passive or very active, it’s hard to get to solutions until you’ve talked through the problem. Once the conversation has opened up, true understanding can be shared and solutions found.

I have found when our intentions toward the other person are truly good and we openly share these intentions, fear and mistrust dissipate and conversations can help solve even the most sensitive problems.

All the best,

Crucial Conversations QA

How to Control Your Emotion

Dear Crucial Skills,

I struggle with showing my emotions when I’m confronted with a tense conversation or situation. What’s worse is that once I start to get emotional, I get mad at myself, and that only makes me more emotional and makes my eyes well up.

After ten years of corporate experience, I still struggle with ‘watery eyes’ during crucial conversations. How can I keep my emotions in check when I’m facing a crucial conversation?

Thank you,
Emotionally Overcharged

Dear Emotionally Overcharged,

I know a man who once said, “I’ve got a problem. I cry at the ribbon-cutting ceremony of a supermarket . . . one that I don’t even shop at.” Likewise, a woman who recently shared the same issue with me said, “I don’t cry; I just can’t stop my eyes from getting wet.” And I had a fellow once ask me how to control the “red splotches” that flushed on his neck and head when a conversation became personal or heated. All of these people, like you, have obvious physical responses that seemingly interfere with the effectiveness of the conversation and can damage a reputation.

So what are some ways to solve these problems? I’ll focus on three categories.

1. Coaching. Find someone you trust and who sees you at times when you show emotions you are uncomfortable sharing or perhaps aren’t appropriately displaying. Ask the person to notice the conditions in the room. For example, is someone more powerful present? Is the topic controversial? Are you taking the topic personally?

Next, try to identify the trigger points. What are the early warning signs? At what point in the conversation did you start to well up or flush red? Did particular words cause the reaction or was it the tone of voice?

Finally, ask your coach to share what he or she observed about your behavior. This feedback will help you notice conditions and triggers early on and give you time to catch the issue before you get too emotional. Ask your coach to help you practice responding to triggers. Try learning to step away from the content to regroup your emotions or showing more enthusiasm by asking questions.

2. Master My Stories. Often, the emotions we share are the result of the stories we tell ourselves. By mastering our stories, we give ourselves a better chance of mastering our emotions.

Before I tear up, I’ve often told myself a story. For example, I have this mantra in my head while I listen to the other person, “Here it goes again. Why do they have to be so selfish?” Prior to that thought, I often have a physical signal. I get what I call a half breath. If I can catch the half breath, I can catch the resulting thought by asking the humanizing question: “Why would a reasonable, rational, decent person do that?”

Being aware of this process helps me control my emotions. But what if the red splotches or tears are the first indicator? Even in this instance, the trick is to listen and watch carefully for any kind of preceding thought or story you’re telling yourself. Try to talk it out with a friend. Then try writing out a script.

In Crucial Conversations, we teach the left-hand column exercise. Divide a paper in half. In the right-hand column write what was said. Then, in the left-hand column, write what you were thinking and feeling at the time these things were said. Also write down what you were thinking and feeling before even coming into the conversation. Often, we can find early warning signs that will help us choose different reactions when we actually get in the conversation. But not always. So…

3. Acknowledge the Situation. A couple of years ago, I was accused of being upset or too serious in certain conversations. This came as a surprise to me, but I soon realized the reason for this feedback. When I am in a conversation and start to think seriously, I frown. I find I can’t really help it. So what do I do? When I know that a conversation will require serious thinking, I stop and admit that frowning is something I am working on. My acknowledgement goes like this: “I have been told that when I start thinking deeply, I have a tendency to frown. I‘m working on it, but if you see me frowning, it’s not that I’m upset, it’s that I’m thinking.” Then I smile. Often, that acknowledgement causes me to smile more or causes someone to say, “Al, you’re clearly thinking now.” And I smile again.

So, I hope you didn’t get teary during the time you read this response. If you did, I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt that you’re not sad or weak, and I hope you’ll give yourself that same benefit of the doubt.

Best wishes,

Kerrying On

Kerrying On: Hidden Dangers

Kerry Patterson

Kerry Patterson is coauthor of four New York Times bestsellers, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Accountability, Influencer, and Change Anything.


Kerrying On

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One day as my father sped along the local expressway, I noticed from my position in the back seat that my door was slightly ajar. At ten years old, I did what any kid would do; I grabbed the handle and tried to give the door a quick open and close. Unfortunately, the very second the latch released, the door violently flew open and stretched me out like Gumby—as I perilously extended between the seat and door.

Hanging suspended over the speeding expressway, I wondered what would come first—would I sag to the point where my face would be sanded away or would my dad come to a stop before I removed my features? (He stopped.) Then it hit me, this is why my brother spoke of our car’s precarious portals as “suicide doors.” Our car sported doors that actually opened backward—catching the wind, pulling you out, and making it nearly impossible to re-close the door as you hung there, suspended over a concrete conveyer belt.

As horrible as it is to contemplate the fact that college-educated engineers purposely designed doors that flew open in the wind, it should come as little surprise to any of us. After all, just about every single part found in a car of that era was dangerous. Even features as simple as door pulls were veritable spears that stabbed you. If you came too rapidly to a stop, the dashboard contained all kinds of pokey things that left ghastly impressions in your forehead, there were no seatbelts, and the windshield glass would break into large, horrible shards of death.

Cars weren’t the only source of danger kids faced in the 50s. Although I didn’t play in uranium tailings like my partner Al (I’ve heard he’s still able to read in the dark by the glow of his feet), being more of a city boy, my mom would drop me and my friends downtown where we’d find our own way to expose ourselves to carcinogens. For instance, we’d stop by the Buster Brown shoe store to play with the lovely toy provided by the Adrian X-ray Company of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. We’d take turns holding our arms or legs in the space where you normally inserted your foot (to see how a prospective shoe might fit) while your friends gawked at moving pictures of your X-rayed skeleton. We actually tried to stick our heads in the machine to see what our skulls looked like.

Home wasn’t much safer during those days. For example, one Halloween my brother Bill brought home a bottle of “glow-in-the-dark” paint. According to the instructions, you were supposed to paint “Boo!” and other topical expressions on the front door, but when my brother accidentally spilled the radioactive material on his pinky finger he discovered that it turned it into a fluorescent, see-through appendage. Seizing the moment, Bill quickly painted both hands with the deadly concoction and ran around the neighborhood scaring kids with his living skeletal hands.

Later that week, the two of us broke open two thermometers and played with the mysterious, smooth, and slippery mercury until it was finally gone. Still later, we produced a bubbling concoction with our chemistry set that smelled so awful that when we rushed the boiling test tube to the window, the noxious fumes literally paralyzed the flies that had been walking on the glass. To this day I suspect that had I not repeatedly sniffed the potion, calculus would have come much easier to me.

We did escape one deadly element by a whisker. A mere three years before my brother was born, the government outlawed the commercial use of radioactive thorium. Since thorium contained so much energy, it was thought to be good for you. Well-intended employees of several toothpaste and laxative companies added thorium to their product. That’s right; they were adding the same material that killed Marie Curie.

Sometimes the ease with which we gained access to dangerous materials put our entire community at risk. For instance, as a young boy I routinely visited the docks during the Blossom Time Festival when the fleet was in. There I found ways to sneak around the various naval vessels that were on display. One year, I simply lagged behind the boring submarine tour that followed a cordoned-off pathway and darted down a ladder to the restricted and nifty parts of the vessel where I then climbed around every space humanly possible—exiting the place covered in grease.

The next year, at the ripe old age of eleven, I pulled the same stunt on a gun ship. Only this time, I snuck into one of the gun turrets where I found a chair hooked up to an ocular device that gave me a close-up view of the hills overlooking Bellingham Bay. Wanting to see my own home, I gingerly moved a couple of levers that changed the view—accompanied by a strangely loud noise. After maneuvering the image for a minute or two, I eventually had a close-up view of my own home on Garden Street.

Then, just as I was about to move the sighting device to look in the window of Rita Smith (the girl who lived next door to us), I was yanked out of the seat. It turns out I wasn’t merely moving the gun sight when I jimmied those levers, I was moving the actual cannon—that’s what was making the loud noise. A second-class gunner’s mate assigned to the security detail spotted the cannon in motion, ran up to the turret, saw a kid aiming the gun at the hillside, and yanked me out of harm’s way. Now, it’s not as if I could have fired the gun, but you have to admit, there’s something unsettling about the whole matter. (Yes, I know I was very wrong in doing what I did—but for crying out loud, how was I ever allowed to do it?)

The good news is, these are all examples from the 50s and we’ve made vast improvements in keeping heavy metals, dangerous chemicals, radioactive materials, X-ray machines, and howitzers out of the reach of children. We can be proud of that. But even in today’s modern times, there’s an invisible force, just as deadly, that can still be found all around us. I’d like to point it out so we can guard against its lethal effects.

I noticed the invisible, yet frighteningly dangerous, force in light of recent political and economic turmoil. As I listened to pundits and talk-show hosts discuss necessary changes, what was happening in our country, and why it was either positively brilliant or insanely stupid, I realized that just as the Curies unknowingly exposed themselves to the invisible dangers of radiation, we’re continually being exposed to the killing effects of assuming our own omniscience.

Here’s how this ugly assumption works. People routinely talk about something as complicated as revamping the country’s massive healthcare system as if their view is remarkably simple, completely obvious, and held by all smart people. Of course, their opponents’ view is just plain stupid. So stupid in fact, that you can’t talk about it without rolling your eyes. This, of course, comes from people at both ends of the continuum.

Now, don’t get me wrong, unlike deadly radiation, you can hear and see the actual argument people make, but the underlying assumption that often goes unseen and scares me the most is the one that smacks of “I’m smart and right and you’re stupid and wrong.” Such pernicious and invisible views provide such a killing blow to civil discourse that they need to be spotted, labeled, and put under locked guard. When people enter a discussion with the notion that it’s their job to patiently wait while others blather on with their insane notions, and then set their opponents straight in one epiphanous moment of insight and verbal magic, there is no hope for civil discourse and the subsequent solution to massive national problems.

So here’s what I’ve been doing to deal with the assumption of omniscience. After listening to a talk-show host who generally reflects my political views attack a new federal policy—not simply because it was risky or possibly wrong—but because (he clearly thought) it was the disastrous product of an insane and ignorant group of opponents, I took action. I stopped listening. I stopped listening to someone who often adheres to many of my views because he positively radiated hate and loathing. He smugly sat there and talked about the opposing view as it was designed by either Satan or an idiot or both. I then e-mailed the highly-popular host and told him why I, a person of similar beliefs, would no longer patronize his program. His assumption that he was omniscient, and that his opponents were omni-stupid, was more than I could bear.

At the more local level, I fight the hidden threat of omniscience at every turn. I do my best to chat with people of opposing views by seeking to understand why they’ve come to their conclusion, tentatively sharing my view, and then looking for any truth—no matter its source. I do this because I want my family, company, and country to succeed. I want the best views to be rationally presented, honestly discussed, and applied to problems that can only be resolved when careful-thinking people present their best thoughts and jointly come up with solutions that often contain elements from both camps. I want people to come up with a third way. I also want people to talk in such a way that if one is wrong and the other is right, they’ll peacefully discover that fact as well.

And, of course, to make all this happen, I hope that people will avoid the deadly assumption of omniscience with the same care and rigor we now apply to avoiding dangerous cars, noxious chemicals, heavy metals, radiation, and the occasional run-in with a howitzer.