Crucial Conversations QA

Finding Respect for Your Ex

Dear Crucial Skills,

I am a recently divorced Dad. I have been trying to restore a civil and respectful relationship with my ex-wife, especially for our four wonderful children. However, she seems to respond to every effort with bitterness, sometimes in front of our young children. We both seem to be struggling to establish safety and mutual respect. How can I begin to rebuild safety and mutual respect with my ex-wife, when it is so hard to find and establish?

Divorced and Distressed Dad

Dear Dad,

When I read your question, I did what I sometimes do when I get a question (like yours) that requires some specialized knowledge. I panicked.

Then I called my dear friends Elaine and Michael Shimberg, co-authors of The Complete Single Father—a terrific book that I highly recommend. Here’s their advice:

“It’s normal in the first months and years after a divorce for former spouses to react fearfully to each other as they try to establish a new sense of safety and mutual respect in the new arrangement. One of the best ways to begin building trust is to do all you can to gain agreement to one ground rule: ‘We will not disagree or show disrespect to the other in front of our children. We will protect them. Just as I am their father, you are their mother. We will respect those positions.’

“It seems his ex is still very angry. Whatever the situation was that caused his divorce, if he wants to have a better relationship he needs to apologize that things didn’t work (whether it was his fault or not), tell her their kids deserve a mother and father who can get along amicably, and that every time either criticizes the other in front of the kids, the kids take it as a criticism against half of them—whether consciously or unconsciously.

“Most divorcees don’t realize the direct effect criticizing their ex-spouse has on their kids. If he makes an agreement to her that he will not talk poorly about her in front of the kids (a concern that is probably fueling her fear) and communicate either by e-mail or in person about anything going on in their lives, it may help rebuild that trust and respect. However, if it doesn’t happen right off the bat, he needs to keep trying as it may take time to get her on board.”

I think this advice is right on target. For many, a divorce feels like a loud and clear message that, “I don’t respect you.” So it shouldn’t be a surprise that both parties can feel self-protective and defensive in the raw months after the traumatic separation—especially if they’re concerned their former partner is saying things to damage their children’s respect for them.

The physics of building—or rebuilding—trust is simple: Trust grows as we generate data that demonstrates trustworthiness. Trust will never exceed the cumulative data to date.

I love Elaine and Michael’s suggestion that you focus on one simple ground rule in your crucial conversation: We will never, never, never do anything that would undermine a child’s respect or loyalty to a parent. If you make that commitment unilaterally, then do your best to intentionally generate data that shows you are acting consistently with the agreement. Doing so will begin to help your ex-wife feel she does not need to go on a preemptive strike against you with the children.

For example, you may want to praise your wife in front of your children for any accommodating action she takes. If your children mention fun things they have done with your ex-wife, go out of your way to encourage them to show appreciation to her. These private actions will likely bubble up publicly at some point in a natural way and will help her know you are keeping your promise. Trust will grow. And she may feel safer laying down her sword and shield.

In addition, you need a remediation ground rule. Given the emotional sensitivity of these months and the increased physical and psychological distance between you and her, it is inevitable that some ambiguous event will occur that she will interpret as you criticizing her in front of the kids. The kids will say something or she’ll hear something from a mutual friend and conclude you’ve violated the agreement—even if you haven’t. Create an easy way to clear the air with her when this occurs or it will inevitably fester and obliterate the fragile trust you’re working so hard to establish.

I salute you for putting your children first and for being willing to take a first step in creating a livable and respectful situation for all.

Best wishes,


Crucial Applications: How to Negotiate Workload Limits

We recently completed a study which reveals the most difficult issue for women in the workplace to discuss and successfully resolve is negotiating limits on their workload—it’s also one of the main issues that cause 1 in 5 women to leave their job.

We partnered with the top women’s business website, Little PINK Book, on this study which also found that women struggle most to hold high-stakes discussions with other women rather than with men. What happens when a crucial conversation goes awry? Nearly half admitted a failed high-stakes discussion caused their productivity and/or engagement to drop, and 1 in 5 women said they’ve had a crucial conversation go so poorly they left their job.

Here are six tips from Crucial Conversations for navigating the most difficult issue at work, negotiating workload limits:

  • Earn the right. Asking for fairness in work limits is easier when you have a reputation as a hard worker. Before raising concerns, evaluate if you are truly doing more than your share.
  • Clarify intent. Don’t start the conversation with complaints—start by establishing mutual purpose with your boss. Begin with, “I have a concern about my workload, but I want to be clear that I care about helping our team succeed. I don’t want to request changes that will make your life harder or put our goals at risk.”
  • Focus on facts. Don’t start with broad conclusions or generalizations that put others on the defensive. Build the case for the point you want to make by sharing objective facts. For example, “I’ve observed that those who do their work get rewarded with more work.”
  • Clarify boundaries. Be clear about any hard and fast limits you have on your workload. If, for example, you have family commitments or personal time values you won’t compromise, lay those out clearly and stick with them.
  • Propose solutions. Don’t just come with complaints—come with recommendations for how to make this work for your boss. If you just dump the problem on your boss, he or she may help you solve it, but you’ll strain the relationship.
  • Invite dialogue. Finally, invite your boss to share his or her viewpoint. People are willing to listen to even challenging views as long as they believe you are also open to theirs.
Kerrying On

Kerrying On: There's Hope

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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Last week while talking with (and trying to impress) my two seventeen-year-old nieces, I mentioned that I had run into Robert Redford at his restaurant just up the hill from our home. The two stared at me with a gaze teenagers typically reserve for a lecture on the history of floor wax. After politely listening to me gush about Bob, one of the twins asked, “Who’s Robert Redhead?”

What?! They hadn’t seen The Sting?! They hadn’t watched Mr. Redford as the delightful Sundance Kid? Had the world gone mad? As I probed further, I learned Mr. Redford wasn’t the only older celebrity unknown to my nieces. In fact, the two were virtually unfamiliar with any stars, celebrities, or politicians of my generation. At first, I figured they didn’t watch TV or movies, but I quickly learned they could tell me the shade of Taylor Swift’s blush, write an entire book on Justin Bieber, and quote whole segments from Miley Cyrus’ latest movie.

How is it these two knew so much about their own times but virtually nothing of the movies, TV, or life experiences of anyone old enough to shave? When I was their age, even younger, I knew a great deal about my parents’ world—including their politicians, luminaries, and movie stars—because I watched dozens of films from the thirties and forties. In fact, I watched them with my parents.

As I congratulated myself on my own sense of history, it struck me that I had no reason to gloat. When I was growing up, my childhood world was perfectly organized to create an environment in which I not only associated with adults and adult things, but spent time learning and discussing life as it unfolded in front of us in our living rooms. We only had four TV channels and they were so lacking in programming that the stations gladly showed material from decades earlier—just to fill the airtime. And since we, like most families of the 50s, only had one TV set and most programs were family friendly, every evening we sat down together and watched a combination of old movies and primetime TV shows.

Why does any of this even matter? Realizing that my nieces were almost completely unaware of anything aged longer than, say, a can of Cheez Whiz got me to thinking. I began to mourn the loss of a simpler time when everyone—adults and children alike—could quote the same movies (“Badges! We don’t need no stinkin’ badges!”) and discuss the same current events. A time when entertainment wasn’t so enormously segmented so as to appeal to only fourteen-year-old boys who own a video game system or twenty-one-year-old single women looking for love . . . or a wedding dress.

What is cultural entertainment actually doing for our culture? If it’s not bringing us together, there’s a good chance it’s driving us apart. I fear we’ll eventually become so segmented that members in a specific niche of the population will have little, if anything, to discuss with people outside their very specific demographic. By becoming increasingly diverse in our tastes and interests, I fear we are limiting our ability to relate to diverse populations—including our own nieces and nephews.

I was discussing this issue with my partner Ron, when he knocked me off my “old fogey” soapbox with a message of hope. He and his twelve-year-old son Ben were talking with a neighbor when his neighbor asked Ben, “So young man, what do you think was George Washington’s greatest contribution to the country?” (Apparently this neighbor wasn’t into small talk). After thinking for a second, Ben responded, “Resigning his commission as general before accepting the presidency.” Ben then went on to explain that disconnecting himself from the military had helped Washington shape the nation into a republic rather than into a military state.

As you might guess, Ron was proud of his son’s insightful remarks. He was also rather astonished. How had his twelve-year-old son developed such an informed opinion about such a weighty topic? It turns out Ben routinely watched and loved the History Channel where he had seen several episodes on Washington’s life.

So, there is hope. In the “good old days” we created a common culture by watching (and reading) old-fashioned stories, enthusiastically discussing current issues and events from the past, and jointly building values that were shaped and conveniently portrayed in their widely shared entertainment venues.

Today we can do the same, not in spite of but with the help of the latest resources. But, in my opinion, only if we use the tools wisely. We may have to switch off a few video games and skip past a dozen or so TV exposés covering celebrity shenanigans, but if we’re willing to search, there’s a great deal of terrific scientific, artistic, and historical material out there that we can and should experience with our friends, relatives, and loved ones.

Of course, it’ll take effort. It’s time we stopped retiring to separate rooms and engaging in separate electronic activities. Instead, pick a program (or a book) of substance, sit down, experience it with your children, friends, and family members, and then discuss the themes and concepts. Watch it at home where you can talk freely as the show unrolls. Pause and discuss issues and ideas. Revel in new scientific and historical discoveries. Roll back the clock and learn from the masters. Tell your own stories while giving people of all ages a chance to talk—each teaching the other.

In short, don’t be mauled by modernity. Master it. Use electronic tools that could easily fractionate and alienate to unite and illuminate. Make the language of your home the language of ideas steeped in history, vivified by art, and supported by science. Create a common culture. Better yet, couple the wisdom of ages with the efficiency of modern methods to create an uncommon common culture.