Crucial Conversations QA

Finding Fault with the Facts


Al Switzler

Al Switzler is coauthor of four New York Times bestsellers, Change Anything, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Confrontations, and Influencer.


Crucial Conversations

Q Dear Crucial Skills,

When I’m having a conversation with my wife, we often disagree on the “facts.” One of us invariably says we don’t remember or we weren’t aware of a previous conversation in which one of us told the other something of importance. What do you do when two people dispute the “facts”?

Disputing the Facts

A Dear Disputing the Facts,

Your question reminds me of a story that has circulated for years. It goes like this:

A husband goes to the doctor for a physical and after it’s done, he says, “Thanks Doc. Can I ask a question about my wife’s hearing?”

The doctor says, “Sure.”

The husband says, “I think she’s going deaf. How can I tell?”

The doctor tells him how to diagnose whether or not she is going deaf and the husband goes home to test her. When he gets home, his wife is doing dishes in the kitchen with her back turned. The husband stands twenty feet away and asks, “Darling, can you hear me?” No response. He moves ten feet closer and asks again. No response. He then stands right behind her and asks again, “Darling can you hear me?”

And the wife says, “For the third time, what?”

Here are a few things we can all learn from this story:

  • As we get older, some of our skills may diminish.
  • Sometimes, we are the root of the problem, even if we don’t see it or hear it.
  • It takes at least two to have interpersonal problems.

I started with this little anecdote because the issue between you and your wife—and between any two people—has some commonalities with the story. I suggest you take the following steps to improve communication with your wife:

Step 1: Get your motive right before you open your mouth. Each of you has to begin by working on yourself first. We’ve found in our research that when we use our best skills first, we find it easier to dialogue with another person—regardless of how skillful or emotional that person is.

In your case, the first clue you should note is that you and your wife are debating or arguing. The motive or purpose for a debate or an argument is to win. When you want to win, you can play all kinds of verbal games. For example, you can argue about what a fact is. You can argue about whether or not a fact is relevant to the discussion. You can stack the deck. You can belittle others’ facts. And so on.

Instead of debating facts, clarify that what you want is to understand, learn, share, and find the best resolution while maintaining respect. Such a motive will help you dialogue instead of debate. When you get your motive right, you can roll out the effective skills you already have. These include listening, asking questions to clarify, and summarizing so you demonstrate that you understand and that you are trying to understand. When you do this, you begin conversing instead of disputing.

Step 2: Agree on how you’ll talk together. You need to make two agreements. First, you need to agree about how you engage in a dialogue. If the two of you agree on several ground rules, you will make it safe to talk. For example, you might say that you’ll have your conversations at times when neither of you is stressed or tired. You’ll find a place that is private and free of distraction like the television, computers, or cell phones. And you’ll use your best skills such as listening, sharing, and maintaining respect.

The second agreement you need to make is to call a time out. If the conversation becomes combative, argumentative, emotional, or if you’re just plain stuck, call a time out and take a five-minute break then start again with a renewed commitment to use your best skills. Once a conversation gets emotional, you can get caught up in the rush of the adrenaline or in the certainty that you’re right and that it’s your turn to win. After your break, begin again by clarifying Mutual Purpose. Take turns asking, “What is your goal?” then ask, “What is our goal? What is the purpose of this dialogue?” When you clarify Mutual Purpose, you are less likely to use tactics that further selfish or opposing purposes.

Step 3: Record important decisions. I’ve saved this bit of advice for last, because it is less necessary if you follow steps 1 and 2. At the heart of your ongoing debate is this: either you have opposing purposes and you’re trying to use facts to help you win; or you can’t remember what the facts are. To overcome this problem, we suggest that people record important decisions—particularly at the end of a conversation when they decide who does what by when and how to follow-up. Why is this important? Memory is unsafe. Memory can be unreliable. Memory can diminish in the rush of other urgencies and deadlines. So write down the facts. What commitments were made? What decisions were made?

I realize that asking a couple to do this may sound like overkill. However, if the reason you dispute the facts is that you can’t remember them or that you have “twisted” them to fit your personal purpose, then you need a record that is more reliable than memory. I have qualified my recommendation of this step as an action that you’d take only if needed. However, if your dispute continues after you’ve done the first two steps, you should consider it. A little note e-mailed or texted between you and your spouse could go a long way toward moving you from debate to dialogue.

More than a few times in my life, I’ve discovered belatedly that I’ve been part of the problem. I’ve also discovered that when I get my motives right and use my best skills, I can be part of the solution rather than part of the problem. And I’ve discovered that I often have to step out of the content of the conversation and get agreements about how we’ll talk. This helps clarify expectations, helps make it safe to talk about tough issues, and it helps me use my best skills. I hope this advice can help you too.

Best wishes,