Crucial Conversations QA

Helping a Grieving Brother

Kerry Patterson is the author of the New York Times bestsellers, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Confrontations, and Influencer.Kerry Patterson is author of three bestselling books, Influencer, Crucial Conversations, and Crucial Confrontations.

Crucial Conversations

Q  Dear Crucial Skills,

My brother’s wife died suddenly and unexpectedly almost three years ago, twenty-one days before their thirtieth wedding anniversary. She was only fifty-two years old. Since that time, my brother has withdrawn deeply into himself and lives in the emotional pain of her death and his loss. He goes to work every day, but is a shell of his former self. He saw a grief counselor for several months after her death, but now speaks to no one about his lingering pain. What can I do to broach the subject with him, to let him know that I care for him and love him, and that talking about this matter may help?

Concerned Sibling

A  Dear Concerned,

I’m so sorry to hear of your family’s loss and of your brother’s continued sorrow. How he must have loved his wife to grieve her passing so passionately. I also understand why you’re concerned about his lingering pain and apparent unwillingness to talk about it. He’s lucky to have such a sensitive and caring sibling.

You’re right to give the topic some thought. Getting others to talk about serious topics—when you’re the one who wants them to open up—always presents a problem. The other person could easily interpret your actions as meddling and become resentful. Or, they might simply feel you’re well intended but wish you’d leave them alone. Either way, the conversation can quickly head south and never recover.

So let’s start with a diagnosis. Why do people choose to clam up when speaking up would solve so many problems? In this case, the undiscussed subject is the loss of a loved one, but it could be about anything.

For instance, after I give a presentation on the topic of Crucial Conversations, people often approach me and ask: “How can I get my life partner to talk to me? I understand how the skills you shared might work once a conversation starts flowing, but my partner never wants to talk about anything.”

Let me address the broader issue of talking face-to-face about meaningful topics in general, and then I’ll return to your specific question.

Here’s my generic diagnosis of why people won’t hold certain conversations. They don’t think it will bring them much benefit. In fact, they fear the costs will exceed the benefits. So, it is better to clam up and live with the current problems than to open up and maybe unlock Pandora’s Box. It’s a simple enough theory. People seek pleasure and avoid pain, and they figure talking will probably bring them pain.

I’m reminded of a civic leader who approached me a couple years back about an upcoming community meeting. He was upset at the previous attendance levels and wanted to know what he could do to get people to show up at the important event. At first, the fellow wanted to use his position of power to threaten folks. Next he wanted to frighten them with horror stories about the impending doom they would surely suffer if they continued to remain apathetic about the meeting.

So I asked him: “Have you thought about the meeting itself?” I had been to a couple and then, like most of my neighbors, stopped going because the meetings were slow-paced, boring, and appeared irrelevant.

“What are you getting at?” the leader asked.

“Perhaps people would be more likely to go if they got more out of the meetings. Maybe if they enjoyed the experience, they’d be willing to give you more of their precious time.”

After a brief discussion, the leader left with a resolve to make the meetings something people wanted to attend.

So now, when people approach me about a spouse or partner who doesn’t like to do much more than grunt and point, I ask: “What, exactly, do you want to talk about?”

“Well, you know, important stuff,” they explain.

“What kind of important stuff?”

“Problems we need to solve.”

After I prod them further, it usually becomes clear that they want to talk to their partner about what he or she is currently doing wrong and why he or she needs to change. As I’d listen to their description of what their partner is doing wrong, I couldn’t blame them for wanting to talk about and resolve the issues. However, I could also understand why the partner was doing everything he or she could to avoid the discussion.

“So, you’ve tried to talk about the issue, but the conversation failed, and now you’re to the point where you don’t talk much at all.”

“That about sums it up.”

After hearing dozens of similar descriptions, I’ve begun to wonder if a less direct approach might be the better solution to getting people to open up. Prior to this insight, my usual suggestions advised people to talk with the silent party about his or her pattern of avoidance—clearly, openly, and directly. I’d suggest starting the conversation by making it safe. I’d have them explain that they’d like to talk about a problem they see—and resolve it in a way that meets both of their needs. I’d warn people about entering the conversation with the assumption that they were right and others were wrong. I’d encourage them to be curious, not judgmental, to describe the issue (facts not conclusions), and to ask the other person if he or she experienced the problem in the same way. I’d then advise people to let the other person talk.

Previously, I believed that if you followed these skills, you would start the conversation on the right foot. While this advice still holds true, I now think that with long-standing silence and a history of broaching a lot of problems, it is best to first set a goal of having enjoyable, non-threatening conversations—about anything—before bringing up headier issues.

Find a way to regularly talk about things the other person cares about. Next, move to serious but non-confrontational topics. Get to the point where you routinely hold pleasant conversations. Once you’re talking regularly, you can broach more testy subjects by following the steps I just suggested. But first, make conversations safe by not restricting every single interaction to a serious problem-solving discussion.

Now, with regards to your grieving brother, obviously you haven’t been continually trying to get him to open up nor are you constantly talking about problems with him. But the idea of making the conversation safe and pleasant for him certainly applies here. Perhaps your brother fears bringing up the issue will only aggravate the problem. And maybe this has been his experience.

So find time to talk with your brother in general (preferably face to face if he lives nearby, but at least by phone). Be his friend and confidant. Increase the time you spend together. Let the transition from pleasant, smalltalk to more serious topics happen naturally. With time, you might want to start talking about your sister-in-law. Share a pleasant memory or two. Read your brother’s cues. Don’t push the topic if he becomes too uncomfortable. Demonstrate that you can share lovely memories without it turning painful.

Eventually you may want to follow the more direct steps I outlined above. But start by simply being there for your brother and modeling a healthy approach to discussing your sister-in-law’s memory. This alone may help him get to the point where he can talk.


Crucial Conversations QA

Finding Middle Ground

Dear Crucial Skills,

When I try to have crucial conversations about issues where there seems to be no middle ground (i.e., abortion, global warming, politics), people often respond with over-the-top, dismissive, and divisive statements. How can I effectively hold crucial conversations about high-stakes topics with those who engage in aggressive ways?

Seeking Middle Ground

Dear Seeking,

Several years ago in London, I hailed a taxi for the 45-minute trip from Gatwick airport to my hotel. After I informed the driver of my destination, he turned back and said, “You have an American accent. Are you American?”

“Yes,” I responded.

He then made a pretty bold generalization about the culture I came from.

It was late at night. I was a bit tired. I weighed my willingness to engage in an energetic conversation and as I considered ignoring the comment I thought, “I should be able to do this. I should be able to talk to someone with a strong opinion even if I don’t fully agree.”

As this challenge took shape in my mind, I found myself more interested in a dialogue. I had no intention of trying to change his mind, but I thought, “Here’s a guy who wants to be heard. And if there’s hope for the world it’s only if people like him and me can disagree in a respectful way.” With this moral mission in mind, I responded.

“Not too worried about your tip, I take it?” I said and smiled at his eyes in the mirror.

He broke into a broad grin, then continued, saying that he loved Americans, but again reiterated some strong generalizations.

His voice got louder and his face redder the more he spoke. I began to wonder if I should just nod and smile or if I should really engage. But I returned to my conviction that until we can find peaceful ways of disagreeing we have no hope of creating real peace in the world. At one point in what turned into a five-minute monologue I patted the back of his seat to interrupt him.

“Hey, my friend. May I ask you a question?”

He looked into the rear view mirror and paused. “Sure. This is your taxi at the moment.”

“You know, I am from the U.S. and don’t get as much contact as I’d like with people who have a whole different experience than I do. I am very interested in hearing your views. And I may agree with some of them but disagree with others. Are you interested in mine, too, or should I just hear you out?”

“Oh, no,” he practically crooned. “I want a debate!”

“Okay, then how about this. You take the first five minutes and then I get the next five. At the end, I don’t care if we both agree on everything or not, but I’m guessing we might both be a little smarter. How is that?”

He laughed heartily, turned to face me full on and said, “You are a strange man. But that is a deal.”

I don’t know that my taxi-driver friend ended up seeing the world any differently when we were done with that ride, but I did. Not that my opinions were profoundly altered, but they were tested in a way I was grateful for. Most importantly, I was encouraged to discover that dialogue was possible with someone who held strong views and who seemed initially uninterested in anything but a monologue.

This is what I’ve found to be helpful in such a controversial conversation:

1. Talk about how you’ll talk. If you’re having a one-sided conversation but would like a dialogue, and it’s not going that way, stop the conversation and come to agreement about ground rules. You can do this in a very respectful way by letting the person know you are interested in their views and want to continue the conversation. Then ask for time boundaries, or lower volume, or whatever will help you engage in a healthier way.

2. Check your motives. Be sure your interest in the conversation is sincere. If you just want a chance to demonstrate the perfection of your own opinions, expect the same from the other person. Fair is fair. But if you want dialogue, be sure you are open to new information or perspectives. If you are sincerely interested in getting smarter not just looking smart, you’ll behave in ways that will invite the same from the other person.

3. Encourage disagreement. We’ve learned a startling truth about dialogue. People are okay with you expressing even very strongly held views so long as you are equally genuine in your invitation of their disagreement. Before sharing your opinions, make a statement like, “You know, I’ve got a really strong opinion on this. I’ve thought a great deal about it and read pretty widely, and I’d like to tell you my view. But at the end, if you see holes in it, or if you have new information I don’t have, I desperately hope you’ll challenge me with it. I really want to learn from your view in any way I can.” This sincere invitation takes the fighting wind out of others’ sails. They realize they don’t have to beat you over the head with their opinions because you’re asking for them!

4. Never miss a chance to agree. Finally, don’t go for efficiency. When we agree on 50 percent of a topic and disagree on 50 percent we tend to move quickly to the disagreements because those are what interest us most. And besides, life is short, so why not start with the fight, right? Wrong! If you want worthwhile dialogue, take the time to listen for points on which you agree. Point them out. Confirm them. Put them in the “Pool of Shared Meaning.” Then—and only then—move to the areas of disagreement. When you do this you reaffirm that your goal is not to win, it’s to learn.

I hope these modest ideas are useful to you as you engage with others. I truly believe the future of humanity lies in our capacity to develop mutual purpose and mutual respect across the planet—and that happens one crucial conversation at a time.

Thank you for your interest in advancing public discourse about our most crucial issues.


Kerrying On

Kerrying On: Just a Child

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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Yesterday when I stopped by our local, family-owned pharmacy I noticed a new addition to the staff. Working alongside an elderly gentleman and his adult son (both pharmacists) was a girl dressed in an apron—complete with a nametag announcing “Hello, I’m Rachel.” She was sweeping the floor behind the counter.

As I waited for my prescription, I struck up a conversation with the youngster and learned that she was, as I suspected, the owner’s granddaughter. It was her first day on the job. Of course, she wasn’t allowed to go near the drugs or the cash register. Nevertheless, she was doing her best to make a contribution.

“I mostly load the cooler with drinks,” Rachel explained. “Today I’m learning how to straighten and dust the shelves.”

“And how old are you?” I asked.

“Twelve,” she blurted as if announcing a triumph of some sort.

“Twelve!” I thought to myself. “But she’s just a child.”

Seeing Rachel in her apron caught me by surprise. Could I have been that young back in 1958 when my grandfather handed me a pale green apron and put me to work in his grocery store? It was the first Saturday after my 12th birthday when Grandpa announced that since I had come of age (in his view, at least) it now would be my job to run the store every Saturday. Grandpa would drive to the wholesale house and load up his 1943 Chevy with groceries for the week. And then he’d take care of “personal business” (play poker with his cronies at the Elk’s Club) while I held down the fort.

In my case, “holding down the fort” meant fetching items from behind the counter, scooping ice cream, slicing and wrapping baloney, pumping gas, totaling the sum on the back of a brown paper bag, counting out change, and bagging the purchases—all the while, making sure nobody stole anything. All by myself.

After a brief orientation period where Grandpa taught me how to make change and watch for thievery, he donned his grey fedora, walked out the back door, and left me in charge of everything he owned.

“That’s my training?” I thought as I heard the Chevy pull onto the street.

I quickly learned that my job consisted of sitting in the back room watching TV until the bell hanging just above the door would announce a customer: “Jingle Jingle.” Like Pavlov’s dog I’d jump to my feet, push through the swinging door that separated the store from Grandpa’s living quarters, step up to the counter, and ask: “May I help you?”

The customer would then walk around the common area while selecting items such as bread, potato chips, and canned corn. Or they would ask me to get the more expensive items located safely behind the counter. For instance, when requested, I’d grab three packs of Camels (23¢ a pack), a quart bottle of Pepsi Cola (25¢), and so forth.

Initially, the customers were nervous about being served by a boy. I was a rather short twelve-year-old. Plus my voice hadn’t gone south yet and this didn’t exactly engender confidence. But I was good with numbers so, as I zoomed through the paper-bag math, the regulars soon learned to trust me with their orders.

With time, I too became comfortable on the job. In fact, it wasn’t long until my friends were routinely visiting me at the store. We’d play cards in the back room. That is, until a customer would enter. . .

Jingle Jingle.

Then I’d break away from my buddies and reluctantly wait on whoever had walked through the door. About six months into the job, I became bored—enough so that my friends and I decided it would be fun to play a trick on the kids who arrived with a pop bottle to trade for penny candy and then take forever making their choice.

Here’s what my bent little mind came up with to keep the kids away. I would crack open a can of chili powder, remove a plug from a hollow gum-ball, and fill it with the red-hot powder. Then I would replace the plug and place the loaded candy onto the lip of the gum-ball machine that sat on the counter next to the till.

“Say, look at that!” I’d exclaim with a look of surprise as a kid walked up to the counter. “Somebody forgot their gumball.”

“I love that stuff,” one of my friends would add.

The unsuspecting kid would look at the brightly colored sphere and then glance back at me for approval. I’d pause for effect and then add the Pièce de résistance: “Go ahead, you can have it.”

Immediately a hand would dart through the air, grab the candy, and stuff it into a welcoming mouth.

Then my friends and I would wait. First the kid would roll the orb around in his or her mouth, tasting the scrumptious outer layer. Next a small nibble. Then came the payoff—a big bite followed by a few rapid chews and eyes that would suddenly widen to full aperture. Next came a howl followed by tiny feet rushing through the door—Jingle Jingle—and ending when the kid leaped off the porch and spit the fiery concoction onto the gravel.

“What’s wrong with that gum?” he or she’d ask with a look of betrayal.

Of course, we never answered because my friends and I would be doubled over with laughter. It was just the kind of thing twelve-year-old boys find hilarious. It was also mean spirited and wrong on many levels.

My buddies and I carried out this trick for two gleeful Saturdays until my grandfather finally caught wind of our shenanigans. My father lectured me, but I could tell from his repressed smile that he thought the whole thing was pretty funny. Mom went off the deep end and chided me for falling in with a crowd of “hardened criminals.” She was convinced I had started down the slippery slope to a life of crime. Grandpa took a more reasonable approach. He asked me what I was thinking. This, of course, was hard to answer because I was thinking that causing the kids to believe that their mouth was on fire was hilarious—which, as I thought about it, made me sound like a sociopath.

Eventually, Grandpa ended his reproof with the classic guilt-trip.

“I expected more of you.”

Gulp. Given that I loved Grandpa dearly, those five words were a shot to my heart. Plus he banished my friends from the store and docked me two Saturday’s wages.

From that day forward, I worked feverishly to regain my grandfather’s trust. I scrubbed the shelves, washed windows, sorted the pop bottles, and otherwise kept busy every second of every eight-hour shift. I also treated every customer with respect. Especially the kids.

I tell this story because as I watch my own grandchildren grow older, I know they too will do childish things. And then when they’re old enough to know better, they’ll still do childish things. The truth is, they’re wired that way. Research reveals the logical and responsible parts of an adolescent’s brain don’t fully develop until around age eighteen.

Fortunately, if adults follow my grandfather’s lead and watch over their errant wards as their brains develop, correct them when necessary, and hold them accountable, they probably won’t (as my mother predicted) fall in with a den of thieves. And hopefully, when they take their first job and screw up as well, a wise boss will firmly correct them and give them another chance.

At a time when the press seems to take every new statistic as evidence of an oncoming Armageddon—in a world where arguments are purposely made for their shock value alone—it’s hard to maintain a proper sense of proportion. Not every drop of rain portends an oncoming storm. Not every sighting of a locust signals a massive swarm just over the horizon. More often than not, the rain stops after a light sprinkling, the locust continues solitarily down the path, and a boy in a pale green apron surprises everyone by growing up.