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Crucial Conversations QA

Mediating Marital Disagreements

Dear Crucial Skills,

I have been a certified Crucial Conversations trainer for more than a year. Prior to my certification, I learned the strategies by teaching them to my family. While we aren’t perfect, we have come a long way in improving our communication.

I have a friend who is miserable in her marriage mostly because she and her husband frequently move to silence and violence or toggle between the two during even everyday conversations. It is painful to watch their marriage crumble. I lent them my copy of the Crucial Conversations audio companion, but I’m not sure they bothered to listen to it. I want to offer to mediate an argument so I can show them how to communicate effectively during a crucial conversation. What do you suggest?

Sharing the Love

Dear Sharing,

One of the toughest challenges is knowing how to help someone—especially if they haven’t asked for your help. There are some principles in Crucial Conversations that will help you, and I’ll use a couple in my advice to you.

First, I point to chapter eleven of Crucial Conversations, “Yeah, But . . . Advice for Tough Cases.” Some situations are tougher than others and we discuss seventeen of these situations in this chapter. Here are a few subtitles that might deal with the challenge you face:

  • My Overly Sensitive Spouse
  • Failure to Live up to Agreements
  • Failed Trust
  • Won’t Talk About Anything Serious
  • Shows No Initiative
  • Endless Excuses
  • Regretting Saying Something Horrible

One of the findings of our research is that sustaining good results and strong relationships is based on how rapidly and respectfully people can resolve differences. Our work supported the findings of Howard Markman, a friend and one of the best researchers on relationships in the world. In his book, Fighting for Your Marriage, he states that the number-one predictor of lasting, happy relationships is “how people argue.”

You mentioned that you lent them your audio companion, and I think that is a good first step. This conversation might have sounded something like this. “My husband and I have found this CD very useful. It has helped our family communicate more effectively. I was wondering if you’d like to listen to it.”

A little note here. You said that you lent “them” the CD. Were they both present, or did you lend it to your friend and expect her to find a way to invite her husband to listen? If so, that may have been the problem.

You might want to get permission from your friend to see if you could try a more proactive step with both of them. By getting her permission, you would avoid any surprises. As an important side note, a recent study shows that when individuals have problems in their relationships and they go to their “friends,” the vast majority of the “friends” are quick to join in criticizing the spouse or partner rather than encouraging them to save the relationship. It looks like you’ve tried to help, but it’s important to note that your friend’s husband may not see the relationship the same way.

I suggest you use contrasting to clarify what you are not intending and what you are intending. In tough conversations, make sure your intentions or motives are clear before you engage in the conversation. So make sure both of them are in the room and that it is a safe and private environment.

It might sound like this. “I’d like to share some of the skills I train. I don’t want to be pushy or step in where I’m not invited. What I want to do is offer something that is helpful to both of you. I’m wondering if it might help if I share some of the communication skills I train at work and that I’ve found useful in my marriage?” And then you pause.

You might choose different wording, but the point I want to make is that clarifying your intentions first helps make it safe. Your friends might say no. They might say yes. They might question your expertise. They might get mad. But you made it clear that you were trying to be a friend—trying to be helpful and not wanting to meddle if your offer wasn’t accepted.

Even if they refuse your help, speaking up is so much better than saying nothing. I’m sure there are many, many individuals and couples who wish they had a friend like you.



Al Switzler

Al Switzler is a New York Times bestselling author, keynote speaker, and leading social scientist for organizational change. For thirty years, Al has delivered engaging keynotes for an impressive list of clientele including AT&T, Xerox, IBM, and Sprint. Al’s work has been translated into twenty-eight languages, is available in thirty-six countries, and has generated results for three hundred of the Fortune 500. read more

One thought on “Mediating Marital Disagreements”

  1. Being a certified Crucial Conversations trainer does not necessarily qualify you to be a marriage counselor. I sounds like she is the friend to the wife, but not necessarily the husband, and it there a lot of audacity in assuming either would be comfortable in having this person “mediate” a disagreement. Ideally, this should be done by a third party who does not appear to have a vested interest in either individual. Offering the CD was a good thing, but the Crucial Conversation should have been with just the friend recommending some real marriage counseling.

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