Crucial Conversations QA

Aligning Different Parenting Styles

Dear Joseph,

My husband is constantly angry at our fifteen-year-old son. They are always in shouting matches and it drives me crazy. When I walk away from them, my husband says I am “burying my head in the sand.” My husband is very negative and set in his ways, and he expects our son to have the same ideas. My husband also verbalizes his disappointment in our son and tells him he is only concerned with himself. Granted, there are times this is true, but he’s a typical teenage boy. He’s sometimes mouthy, but he’s a good kid, works hard even though he may complain, and is never in trouble anywhere but at home.

I want to support my husband, but I feel he is often wrong, that he goes too far, and that some of his expectations are unreasonable. When I try to talk about it, he says that I am taking our son’s side and that the only way he can keep the peace is to just shut his mouth and not say anything. He’s not very open to conversation. Help!

End of My Rope

Dear End,

Aren’t marriages wonderful? And I mean that! Sustained, intimate relationships are usually both the greatest opportunity for personal growth and the greatest challenge of our lives. And they are the former because they are the latter.

You are exactly the gift your husband needs, and he may just be the perfect gift for you. Children need both affirmation and influence. It sounds like you’re world-class at affirmation and he has a bias for influence. Unfortunately, many relationships break down because we keep trying to make the other person be good at what we value without properly recognizing our need for what they bring to the party. Now, I’m not suggesting your husband’s approach to influence is the best. But it sounds as though what’s important to him is trying to help bring out the best in your son. And your approach to affirming him may, at times, come at the expense of helping him aspire to higher standards. But that should not take away from the fact that you see great worth and beauty in him. That’s wonderful!

So the question is how do you turn conflicting values into complementary ones? How can you and your husband create a relationship where your son gets the best you both have to offer—and where you both learn to offer it in a healthier way?

Here are some suggestions:

1. Start with safety. Help your husband know that you value what he is trying to do for your son. Express genuine appreciation for his desire to influence your son to strive. Point out specific ways you can see that your son has benefited from having him as a father. Then scrupulously avoid using the word, “but.” Don’t do it! Get it out of your brain.

After affirming your value for having a positive influence on your son, don’t go on to say, “But…you often do it about things that aren’t that important.” There are no “buts” when you’re affirming people and creating Mutual Purpose. There are only “ands.” The fact that you appreciate him wanting to challenge your son is not offset in any way by your desire to also affirm him. The two are complementary, not competing, values. So don’t make it seem like they are in conflict by using the b-word.

2. Motivate with natural consequences. If your husband is reluctant to engage in this conversation with you, think of things that are important to your husband that will help him want to engage. Then share these as you invite him into this complex discussion. Think, for example, about pain, concerns, worries, or problems he may have with you or with your son that are connected to the changes you’d like to discuss.

For example, you might say, “John, I’ve been thinking a lot about how we can better work together with our son. I know you and I haven’t always seen eye-to-eye. I know you are also frustrated that he has drifted away from you. I also know you don’t like how I criticize you at times about how you handle things. I don’t have a lot of answers, but I want to find a way to help you have the relationship you want and to partner in a way that works for you as we solve problems with him. Could we set aside some time to discuss this?”

3. Work on you first. Realize that while you will have useful feedback for your husband, he will likely see weaknesses in you that you must be willing to hear. Be open and humble. If you get defensive in the conversation, avoid reacting in the moment. Say, “I’m sure there is merit in what you’re saying. I’m feeling defensive right now so I’m going to need time to think about it. Can I do that and then get back with you later to talk about what I will do with these suggestions?”

If you are to work together better, it is going to require both of you to change. You will need to be more willing to be part of raising tough issues with your son and holding him accountable. Your husband will need to be willing to learn to do it in a healthier way—and focus on big things while letting go of little things. If you both work on yourselves, you’ll be a potent parenting team for your son.

4. Organize for the long run. Have realistic expectations. If both you and your husband have habits that have been nurtured over a lifetime, they aren’t going to change after one conversation. I suggest you frame this conversation as a starting point, then agree on ways you can help each other stick with commitments you make about how to work together more productively. Be patient with one another as you try new approaches. Expect relapses. I suggest you read our book, Change Anything, as a couple, for ideas on how to create a plan that will help you both make steady progress in changing these habits.

I applaud your commitment to your son and wish you the best as you find ways to complement one another, grow together, and give your son the gifts both of you want so much to offer.



Kerrying On

Kerrying On: Sound the Alarm

As a boy, I loved to watch Father Knows Best, a TV program showcasing your typical sitcom family of the 50s. One of the more memorable episodes involves a short-wave radio that teenager Bud is refurbishing. When he finally gets the contraption working, he finds himself listening to a conversation between two boats located over a thousand miles away. The signal is bouncing off the ionosphere—making him privy to a conversation between the “Betty Anne,” a 34-foot cabin cruiser and other vessels nearby.

Soon, the entire Anderson family is drawn into the action as the Allen family aboard the Betty Anne heads into a horrible storm. The Allen’s think the turn in the weather is nothing more than a rainsquall. The Coast Guard sounds a warning of an impending storm. But the two parties can’t hear each other due to local interference.

The Andersons, beneficiaries of the signal bounce, can easily hear everyone involved and can’t figure out why someone doesn’t help the Betty Anne or radio the Coast Guard. As the Allens are about to be tossed into the violent sea, the Andersons anguish over their inability to offer help.

Completely pulled into the teleplay, I shouted into the TV: “Call the Coast Guard! You know the Betty Anne is about to capsize five miles off Shark Island. You can save the Allens! Just make a phone call!”

Finally, after ten minutes of tortuous inaction from the Andersons and constant coaxing from me, Mr. Anderson realizes that he can phone the Coast Guard. He makes the call, saves the Allen family, and I stop yelling at the TV.

I walked away from that teleplay vowing that if I were ever in a position where I could spot an upcoming disaster (one that I could foresee but others couldn’t) I’d shout out a warning. Today, I feel as if I’m watching just such an impending disaster, so please allow me to offer up a warning.

As you observe young people working their way through school, you can’t help but take notice as they approach certain critical junctures. Early on, they decide whether school is their thing or not. They decide whether grades and studying is their thing or not. And finally, they decide whether math, science, literature, art, or philosophy is their thing or not.

There was a time when the subject you chose to master at school, or for that matter, how many years you attended, didn’t exactly seal your financial destiny. When I was young, there were a variety of jobs available for people who barely limped through high school. Manufacturing positions paid good money and offered a solid career path to individuals who were willing to roll up their sleeves and get dirty. In fact, blue-collar positions paid, on average, more than white-collar ones. The joke at the time was that factory workers made more than lawyers. Advanced education seemed more of a luxury than a strategic choice.

Circumstances have changed to the point where the data are now crystal clear. While we still have a strong manufacturing core, contemporary firms produce high-tech, high-cost items, built by people who’ve done well in school and have had plenty of it. As a result, on average, American employees make more money with each year they spend in school—all the way through a PhD.

So, when youngsters say, “You know, school isn’t my thing.” It’s our job to let them know of the disaster that might lie just beyond the horizon. It’s our responsibility to explain that when they distance themselves from school, they might be choosing a job pool and income level they won’t like—and it could last their entire life.

In a similar vein, when a youngster says, “I know that school matters, but it isn’t easy for me. I don’t test well. Grades aren’t my thing,” alarms should go off in your head. Grades matter a great deal and according to recent research, most people can learn to get good grades if they’re taught how to study. Learning how to learn doesn’t call for rocket science.

I’ll never forget the day I graduated from high school and our friend Harry Roller sat me down and prepared me for college by teaching me how to succeed in school. He told me to go to every class and do every assignment. You read the reading assignment beforehand. You leave class and head straight to a quiet place in the library where you don’t study with noisy friends. Instead, you sit down in that quiet spot, review your notes, and prepare for your next class.

Reading is a science in itself. You take a short walking break after fifteen minutes. At thirty minutes you take a three-minute break. At sixty minutes, a five-minute break. You start a chapter by reading the questions at the end and pouring over the headings, charts, and models, then you read the chapter. And so forth.

We know how to maximize learning. It’s not a mystery. So when young people say grades aren’t their thing, teach them how to earn good grades by helping them improve their study techniques. It’s hard to imagine an investment that has a greater rate of return than learning how to learn.

And now for the final danger sign. Say your kids agree that both school and grades matter. Unfortunately, they find math and science to be puzzling. It’s not long until they explain that they don’t like math. Eventually they suggest that they don’t “do” math. After all, they aren’t nerds. With time, they come to frame their disdain for all things quantitative as an asset—sure they’re bad at math, but hey, they have social skills that give them an advantage.

For others, math and technology is their thing and they see literature, art, and the like as weak and without scientific underpinnings.

While it’s wonderful to find a passion, it’s sad when young people turn this love for one field as a reason for not exploring others. Not only does this narrow framing cut them off from important parts of life, it makes them vulnerable.

I used to sit on the admissions committee of a popular master’s program. Demand far exceeded supply so we could only accept a fraction of the applicants. About once a year, one of the local candidates who had been turned down would corner me in the hallway and plead his or her case.

“I scored nearly perfectly in the verbal section of the qualifying exam and I won two writing awards. Sure my quantitative score was only average, but my verbal skills more than make up for it.” Or: “Did you see my quantitative score? I’m a gifted scientist. Sure, my verbal score wasn’t all that great but . . .”

You can see where this is going. I would point out that the students who were accepted scored high in both areas of the test. To be admitted, you have to be able to play with both sets of blocks. It was sad to watch these eager applicants as they realized for the first time that doing well in only one domain simply wasn’t enough to earn them a place on the roster.

Of course, all of us are acquainted with people who’ve found ways to work in careers they love, and some of them earn a good living. There are always thousands of exceptions to the rule. Nevertheless, I believe it’s important to let your young family members and friends know the impact of school, grades, study methods, and a balanced skill set.

We’ve looked out into the future and like the Anderson family, have observed what could easily be an impending disaster. It doesn’t involve boats heading into a storm; nevertheless it could be disastrous just the same. Allow the next generation of youngsters to dismiss the importance of school, disregard grades, and turn up their noses at whole branches of knowledge and they may face a tumultuous future. I feel it’s my duty to sound a warning.

Crucial Conversations QA

Three's A Crowd

Ron McMillan

Ron McMillan is coauthor of four New York Times bestsellers, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Accountability, Influencer, and Change Anything.


Crucial Conversations

Q Dear Crucial Skills,

My seven-year-old daughter is stuck in a three’s-too-many triangle with two of my neighbor’s daughters. Stakes are high because I don’t want to disrupt ties with my neighbors, but these girls are almost to the point of bullying my daughter. I know kids will be kids, and I don’t know that the discipline of the parents will change. Should I just give up and tell my daughter not to play with them? Do I restrict the girls from playing on our playground? How can I help my daughter deal with the neighborhood “mean girls”?


Treading Lightly

A Dear Treading,

I am happy to give you some advice about your problem but want to emphasize that this answer comes with no guarantees of outcome. I have faced this problem twice; once with a mostly successful outcome and another that was not so good. I have eight daughters, and I’ve concluded that it’s very hard for girls to hangout in threesomes. But, alas, I’ve been jaded by my personal experiences and shouldn’t try to generalize.

In the situation you describe, there are two issues: the problem of your daughter being excluded and the problem of things being “almost to the point of bullying.” I recommend you be most concerned about the bullying problem. I believe there is a tendency for parents to underestimate the pain and damage caused by bullying. It’s a form of violence we should not tolerate.

I recommend you speak with the parents of both children, and do the following:

Ask yourself, “What do I really want?” You certainly want to stop any bullying and make your daughter safe. You might also want the other girls to be friends with your daughter. This is where I start getting skeptical. I think you can get kids to play together, especially under structured, planned conditions; but to get two children to include another regularly and consistently boils down to their choice. It’s hard to make kids be friends. Nevertheless, work to stop any bullying behavior for sure, and see the threesome as a bonus if things go really well.

Gather the facts. This is the homework required to have this kind of crucial conversation. Find out what actually occurred and who said what and why. Don’t jump to conclusions or make assumptions about motives.

Share your good intentions. When you meet with the parents, begin by sharing with them what you want and what you want to come of this conversation. You might say something like: “Thank you for meeting with me. I want to discuss our daughters and make sure that we nip any problems between them in the bud. I also want to keep a good relationship between us parents. I’m not trying to cause any problems or bad feelings.”

Describe the gap. Factually describe what happened and compare it with what is expected. You could say, “I spoke with my daughter and she told me when she went to play with Mindy and Jessica, Mindy told her to get lost. She asked what was wrong and Mindy said they didn’t have to play with ‘a stupid baby’ and pushed her. My daughter came home crying. Now, I know that kids will be kids and I’m not trying to blow this out of proportion, but his kind of thing has happened at least once before. I want the three to be friends and to be kind to each other.”

Ask a diagnostic question and listen. Once you’ve introduced the issue without making accusations and laid out the problem in a non-judgmental way, ask a question to see if the other parents are aware of the problem. Find out whether they have a different point of view. Keep in mind you are not here to pick a fight or place blame. You are having this conversation to solve a problem in a way that preserves your relationships. Try:
“Are you aware of this situation? Do you see it differently?” Listen carefully to understand.

From this point, the conversation could go many directions. The other parents could be concerned and work with you to resolve the situation, or they might be defensive and protective of their daughters. They could even blow it off and not see it as an issue that deserves their attention. They could split and not agree on what needs to be done.

I’m not sure what will come next in your situation, but I believe by starting in the way I recommend, you will avert many problems that could otherwise pop up and decrease the likelihood of your success. You’ll need to be ready with all your skills and clear thinking to get to good outcomes.

If the parents don’t respond in the way you would hope, I would counsel you against talking with the two other girls directly. It’s very easy to have your words misunderstood and misconstrued when reported by the children back to their parents. Better to coach your daughter on how to handle the situation with the other girls. Practice what you want her to say to them if she’s confronted, and focus on helping her build other friendships.

Remember how fluid relationships can be at such a young age and recognize that today’s apparent brat could easily be tomorrow’s best friend.

I hope these ideas help and I hope things work out well. Keep in mind, the most important thing that might come of this: your daughter learns how much you care about her and remembers the things you teach her about dealing with others her age.

Because this is a very tricky situation, I encourage other readers to write back in the comment section. What has been your experience? What advice would you give this parent?