Al Switzler is author of three bestselling books, Influencer, Crucial Conversations, and Crucial Confrontations.
During the month of July, we will be running “best of” content from the authors. The following article first appeared on August 15, 2007.
Dear Crucial Skills,
My son asked my brother for a big, non-monetary favor, and my brother turned him down. Now my son is very angry and cuts himself out of the family activities whenever my brother is involved. He refuses to go to my brother’s house for family events or be friendly when my brother is included.
He is holding a deep grudge and the anger is hard on everyone. I’ve tried to talk to him about this—how the grudge is hurting him more than my brother and how the anger is eating at him. I’ve also tried to explain what this tension does to the rest of the family and the sadness it causes. So far he has blocked me out and won’t discuss it. I know the problem is my son’s, but it’s hurtful to me as well. My brother has acted like an adult and is open to my son, but he has not apologized—and I’m not sure he has anything to apologize for. What next?
The Family Peacekeeper
You described a tough situation that I’m sure many people identify with. This leads me to an observation before I offer some suggestions.
I’m interested that you signed off as a “peacekeeper.” Judging by your description of the situation, I believe you are. To keep the family strong, you have encouraged people to surface the issues and resolve them. Good for you. Not everyone who calls himself or herself a peacekeeper is one. Often a more accurate description is “avoidance coordinator” or “problem hider.” These people use phrases like, “Oh, don’t bring that up, it’ll just cause more problems,” or “Let it rest; time will cure it.”
Your efforts so far are right on track to me. And your frustration is one I can identify with—because nothing matters more to me than family. Now for a suggestion:
You have done well in talking to your son about the consequences to him, the family, your brother, and you. One question you might consider is how your son perceived the conversations you’ve had with him. How did your motive come across? In crucial conversations we learn to Start with Heart. Ask yourself, “What am I acting like I want?” Sometimes our motive comes across as selfish and short term. Did your son see you as nagging? Or as taking your brother’s side?
Motive precedes message. When your motive is genuine and seen as mutual and long term, the other person is very likely to hear you. To find a more effective motive, ask yourself “What do I really want for me, for my son, and for our relationship?” The first two parts help the motive become mutual; the relationship part helps the motive become long term. If the answer helps you ask more questions about your son’s motives, choices, and desires, then perhaps the conversation will be seen as a mutual dialogue and not another “lesson.” By starting with heart, you are more likely to end up with the relationship and the results you desire.
You might also ask your brother to talk to your son about his desires. The simplest form of this is to combine an observation and a question. For example:
“I’ve noticed that you don’t come to our home and you no longer talk to me. I want you to know that I want to have a wonderful relationship with you and would like very much if we could talk through this so we can resolve it.”
You are not asking your brother to apologize, just to make the request for dialogue and share his intentions to have a good relationship. This minimal step can help clarify that your brother has good feelings toward your son and that his decision not to help your son out was not personally motivated.
We won’t necessarily resolve all the tough situations we face. But if we keep trying, using our best skills gives us our best chance for improving results and relationships.