Ron McMillan is coauthor of three bestselling books, Influencer, Crucial Conversations, and Crucial Confrontations. His fourth book, Change Anything, was recently published.
Dear Crucial Skills,
My in-laws live six hours away, but frequently visit and stay at my home. They have a wonderful relationship with my three young children, but I’m worried because they bring their dog, and in the last year, the dog has started nipping at my kids. Although my husband and I told them in no uncertain terms that the dog is not to be near the children, we found out that my father-in-law sneaks the dog out when we’re not looking. This rule was ignored and the dog recently bit the hand of my oldest child and drew blood.
We recently visited family, and because the dog was around multiple children, I told the mothers that the dog bites and everyone was beyond angry that my father-in-law kept letting the dog out. He knows how we feel, yet refuses to put the safety of his own grandchildren over the coddling of his dog! It has created an extremely tense environment and is affecting our relationships. We have tried asking nicely, stating directly, and are on the verge of an ultimatum. What should we do now?
In a situation where we are weighing Dad’s convenience and preference against the safety of children, it’s time for a crucial confrontation. You said you tried “asking nicely” and “stating directly” but your father-in-law continues to sneak the dog out when you are not looking. Your father-in-law is likely seeing this conflict in terms of his “sweet little dog that wouldn’t hurt a fly” and is “practically a member of the family” against some “nervous Nelly” moms who are over-protective. He thinks his little allowance in letting the dog out to play with the kids is a minor infraction that doesn’t matter all that much.
He is obviously discounting your collective wishes and ignoring your fears; he is minimizing the importance of your concerns. The way you motivate others to give your concerns more weight is by helping them understand the consequences that could result from a given course of action. Natural consequences are those that will naturally result without any imposition on your part. In this case, even a misplaced nip from a small dog could result in blindness to a child or life-long scarring.
Imposed consequences are consequences you enforce if others do not comply with your requests. Such a consequence is that you will call animal control. However, I don’t recommend using this consequence. It’s best to talk about natural consequences first.
Talking through the consequences should motivate Dad to consider your concerns. If you don’t get compliance with natural consequences, then carefully consider whether to move to imposed consequences. Damaging the relationship is a real possibility. However, when dealing with danger to your children, Dad’s compliance with your standards may be more important to you than sparing his feelings.
I will assume you shared consequences in your earlier conversations. If Dad still misbehaves, what do you do next?
Verbal persuasion has failed to change Dad’s behavior; the children’s safety is paramount. It’s time to impose consequences. Be respectful! Emphasize that you want to continue the relationship with Dad but not the dog. Begin by factually reviewing how you arrived at this point. Try something like this:
“Dad, we’ve talked to you several times about our concerns with having your dog around your grandchildren. Yet the dog continues to get out, and last time you visited, he bit Jeremy’s hand. Dad, we want you to visit. Your visits with us and our visits to your place are very important to us, but to make them work we have to arrange for the dog to go to a kennel or find a dog sitter. We can help arrange one here or you can find one near your home, but we will not let the dog come to our home or visit your home if the dog is there.”
Use contrasting to prevent misunderstandings. “We don’t want you to shorten your visits or make them less frequent. We love you and your visits. We do want you to make other arrangements so the dog is not present during our visit.”
Listen to your father-in-law’s feelings and concerns, then brainstorm workable solutions. Don’t jeopardize your children’s safety with an unrealistic compromise.
Now, follow through. Be prepared to pack up if the dog is there when you arrive at Dad’s. Be prepared to not let the dog in your house if he accompanies Dad on a visit. Reaffirm your love for Dad and your resolve to protect your children, even if the cost is Dad’s hurt feelings.