Dear Crucial Skills,
My father-in-law is a very powerful person and I don’t feel comfortable speaking honestly about anything with him. If I ask him a question about an issue I want to resolve, he announces his opinion then cuts off any discussion by saying, “Well, that’s how life is sometimes” as he stands up to leave.
I think he is very wise and would like to learn from him, but I can’t get him to engage in any kind of dialogue. As a result, I leave feeling like I don’t exist and that he thinks he knows all. My husband seems to take after him so I feel like I’m in a communication desert all by myself. Do you have any suggestions?
I would have given a different answer twenty years ago than I will today. I’m still very much a believer in people’s potential to change. However, some life experiences with a wonderful variety of loved ones have led me to conclude that everyone is a package. Myself included. We all have idiosyncrasies, habits, and proclivities—some of which are the source of our genius and some of which drive everyone around us batty. And sometimes, the genius and the quirkiness flow from the exact same attribute.
I say this as prelude because, while I will advise you to hold a crucial conversation, I will also encourage you to work on yourself first. Clarify your motives before even attempting the conversation. If your motive is to “fix” or “change” your father-in-law, you’re more likely to be disappointed than effective. If instead your goal is to share feedback then accept his freedom to accommodate or ignore it, you will not only come across entirely differently (i.e., not needy or pushy), but you will be more likely to have influence. Ironically, if your motive is to control, you not only fail to gain control, but you lose your influence. If you give up trying to control others, you gain influence in the bargain.
With that said, here is some advice about how to hold the conversation itself.
Hold the right conversation. Often, we fail at the outset because we dive into the wrong topic. For example, we talk about content—what just happened—when we want to talk about a pattern—something that happens regularly. This could happen in your case because you address something your father-in-law just said to you when your real issue is a pattern of these sorts of comments over time. Your goal needs to be to have a pattern conversation. And that calls for a special approach.
Timing is everything. Don’t wait until you’re bugged to talk. That’s what most of us do with our pattern conversations. We wait for yet another instance of someone behaving badly then we pounce on it; not to address what just happened, but to dump our laundry list of grievances from ages past. If you want to talk about a pattern, pick a time that is not clouded with a recent transgression. It not only helps you be in a proper mindset, but it helps avoid giving the other person an opportunity to make excuses about the pattern by pointing to special issues in the present instance. For example, your father-in-law might say, “I had to walk out just now because I have a conference call in half an hour!”
Make it safe. You have all the right information in your question to create safety at the beginning of this conversation. Read it again. You clearly care about your father-in-law. You respect him. You want something from him that he is likely to feel flattered giving, so that’s what you need to make clear as you start.
For example, you might say, “I’d like to talk about some ways I could have a better relationship with you. I value the relationship we have, and I’d like to be even closer and more comfortable. I admire you, sometimes to the point of feeling intimidated around you. I also see you as a great source of wisdom, something I’d like to take advantage of even more than I do now. And yet, there are some things in how we interact that don’t work for me. I’m hoping it is okay to share how I see it and find out how either you, or I, or both of us could communicate better.
Ask permission. One of the best ways to ensure others feel safe is to sincerely ask for permission before launching into the crucial conversation. If your father-in-law might be uncomfortable with this level of communication, it is all the more important to help him feel in control by asking his consent before launching into your concerns. All you need do is add, “Would that be okay?” to the above monologue.
Change media. Judging from your description, it may be that your father-in-law will be too uncomfortable to have this conversation face-to-face. If that is the case, you may want to try mixed media. If you choose to write a letter, I would make the same “make it safe” statement from above then add, “I think the best way to express some of what I wanted to say is in writing—so I’ve written this out. But my hope is that we can discuss it afterward if you’re comfortable doing so. If not, then I understand and will be fine keeping things the way they are now.” You’ll notice that the last phrase tests whether you have surrendered your hope of controlling him or not. Be sure you have or your words will ring hollow.
I hope these ideas help. It sounds like you’ve fallen into the same pattern with your husband, so I hope these suggestions are a step toward creating the relationship you clearly want to have with him as well.