Al Switzler is coauthor of four New York Times bestsellers, Change Anything, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Confrontations, and Influencer.
Dear Crucial Skills,
I need help guiding my ten-year-old daughter in a crucial conversation with one of her good friends. Her friend frequently compares herself to my daughter and comes up short in these comparisons. The friend says things like, “Everyone likes you more. Your art project turned out better than mine did. Your costume was better than mine.”
My daughter leaves these conversations feeling like she’s the source of all her friend’s problems. She’s reaching the point of wondering if she should even continue the friendship. I’ve suggested ways to approach her friend but she tells me it’s “too many words.” How can I help my ten-year-old daughter have a crucial conversation?
I don’t consider myself a parenting expert—even though my wife and I raised four kids—but I hope you and our other readers find my advice helpful. Here are three sequential suggestions for helping your daughter hold a crucial conversation.
Be patient and teach patience. In spite of the fact that I’ve often written in this forum of the necessity of speaking up, I suggest your daughter be patient. If she were my daughter, I’d tell her that her friend (or cousin, or sister) has many strengths and some behaviors that irritate—we all do—and that she should focus on her friend’s good qualities. I’d explain that this happens with relationships at all ages, I’d ask her to give it a little time, and I’d tell her she shouldn’t take it personally.
I’d also teach her how to change the subject to focus on the positive. I might teach her a script to use when the friend begins to compare. The script might be as simple as saying, “Oh, let’s not compare, let’s talk about how fun the art project was.” Of course, we can choose our friends, but we can also choose to show in our acts of friendship and caring a little patience. Sometimes that patience allows the other person to grow and change, and we also become closer friends.
Act first, talk second. As part of a strategy of patience, we can initiate actions that create new and mutual experiences. In your daughter’s case, she should choose some activities that are meant to be fun and not competitive or comparable. For example, she and her friend could go feed the ducks and have a picnic at the park. Or they could watch a movie at home and then talk about it over ice cream. This is simply a time to be friends—to laugh, talk, and have fun.
If the friend starts to compare, your daughter should simply use the script, “Oh, let’s not compare, let’s have fun.” This strategy allows time for growth and change, but it also adds to the number of positive experiences that can strengthen the relationship. You will notice that at the heart of this strategy is the intention of keeping this friend as a friend.
If the pattern persists, speak up about the pattern. We can talk ourselves blue in the face about the wrong thing and get no results. People do this pretty often—they address the easy topics rather than the hard ones; they talk about the simple subjects and not the complex; and they talk about the incident instead of the pattern. If your daughter tries patience and action, and her friend still continues to compare, then she should try speaking up about the pattern. I’m going to suggest a script that is suitable for children. Let me say first that I’ve taken to heart what you said about avoiding “too many words.” I know it’s hard, but I’m going to do my best.
I’d suggest that when your daughter’s friend starts using comparisons, your daughter in private (for safety) says, “You just said that my drawing was better than yours. Comparisons make me feel uncomfortable, especially because we are each good at different things. Could you please try not to do that?”
The key here is to teach your daughter what to do based on her friend’s response. If her friend says, “I’m sorry. I’ll try,” teach your daughter to say “thanks” and continue with what they were doing. If her friend becomes emotional or wants to explain all the details or defend her position, your daughter might want to say something like, “We’re good friends. You have lots of strengths too. Can we not talk about who’s better than the other and instead just play?” If her friend persists, teach your daughter to repeat the script and move on. Likely, over time, her friend will get the message and the uncomfortable comments will stop.
If you don’t have a ten-year-old daughter, you can also apply this advice to your friendships. You can use these same strategies with a friend who constantly talks about others, goes on and on about personal problems, or brings up a pet subject like politics or the environment. In these situations, try a little patience then add some actions that build mutual experiences. If you must talk, talk about the pattern. In all of this, remember that if push comes to shove, share your intentions. What are you trying to do? You are trying to make your friendship stronger.