Crucial Conversations QA

Q&A: Helping a Laid-off Spouse

David Maxfield

David Maxfield is coauthor of three New York Times bestsellers, Crucial Accountability, Influencer, and Change Anything.


Crucial Conversations

Q Dear Crucial Skills,

My husband was terminated from his job last June because he was told it was “not a good fit.” He worked from home and I could tell that during conference calls he was usually either blamed for not getting a job done on time or was defensive about the work he did. It’s now March and still no job prospects. He is very defensive when I suggest job opportunities, networking, or re-training. I am to the point where I am shutting down because of his attitude, but finances are becoming critical. How do I talk to him about real solutions for job hunting and networking without him getting so defensive?


Critical Situation

A Dear Critical,

Thanks for asking a tough question. The sad truth is that time doesn’t always heal all wounds. Sometimes a personal calamity such as termination, death, divorce, financial loss, etc. creates a vortex that grows with time—engulfing the person, and sucking their loved ones into a growing spiral of failure.

It sounds as if your husband is caught in this kind of vicious cycle, and it’s reaching into your relationship. Take heart. There are ways to break free, but it will take effort on your part—and some of this effort might seem counterintuitive at first.

Painful stories. Think of your husband’s termination as a powerful blow that left bruises. These bruises are painful realizations or stories your husband is now telling himself. The stories we see most often are helpless, victim, and villain stories.

Helpless Story: Your husband might be thinking: “I’m a failure,” “It’s hopeless,” or “I’ll never succeed.” These stories will undermine his mood, self-esteem, and motivation. These thoughts often become automatic, entering his head every time the topic is touched, and create humiliation and pain. They might explain why your husband is avoiding everything related to the topic.

Victim Story: Your husband might be thinking: “The system is rigged,” “It’s all political,” or “People don’t respect me.” These stories would make him feel put upon and oppressed. They might also explain why he resists your attempts to help.

Villain Story: Your husband might be thinking: “My boss wasn’t fair to me,” “The company shouldn’t have fired me,” etc. These stories would lead to ruminating on and revisiting the blow. People who tell villain stories often reactivate the personal calamity instead of grow beyond it.

Master these stories. In an ideal world, your husband will come to realize that these self-defeating stories aren’t the whole story. Sure, he might not be as skilled, as politically savvy, or as appreciated as he assumed he was, but he’s not a failure either. He will put this blow into perspective. However, if he hasn’t come to this realization on his own, then there are actions you can take to help.

• Use Direct Experience. Your husband needs proof that the self-defeating stories he’s internalized aren’t the complete truth. You can help by focusing on his successes, rather than his failures. However, words alone aren’t likely to be enough. Look for ways to use direct experience. For example, how can he help others during this time between jobs? The best way to recover from a blow to your self-esteem is to earn it back. He can do this by making a challenging and meaningful contribution to others.

Focus on the purpose, not the strategy. One of the challenges we face as family members is that we’re seen as nagging, rather than helping. The solution is to back away from the specific requests we’ve made, and focus on the broader common purpose that unites us.

• You say your husband gets defensive when you suggest jobs, networking, or re-training. Try backing away from these specific strategies. Instead, ask for your husband’s help with the broader mutual purpose: managing your family’s critical financial decisions.

Remember, respect is at risk. Your husband’s self-respect has taken a beating. He’s likely to be extra sensitive to any sign of further disrespect. In fact, he may take your well-intentioned suggestions as a sign that you don’t trust or respect him.

• Take extra care to avoid being directive or controlling during the conversation. Emphasize exploration, visioning, and personal choice and control. Remember that requests may feel like demands.

You might open this conversation with: “I’d like us to set aside a time to explore our goals together. My main goal is for us to build a happy life together. Everything else is open to change. Maybe it’s time to jump off the rat race. Or maybe it’s time to double-down. Can we set aside an hour or two to talk about what you’d like to see happen?”

Explore barriers, instead of advocating for actions. There is a common mistake most of us make when we’re in your situation. We advocate for actions we believe in instead of exploring the barriers that make these actions difficult. When we take it as our role to advocate, we force the other person to argue the other side. We argue for, they argue against, and guess who wins?

• It works better if we begin by acknowledging that the action will be difficult. This shows respect for why they are stuck. Then explore the barriers one at a time, in bite-sized chunks. Brainstorm solutions, while continuing to emphasize personal choice and control.

De-escalate your finances. My suggestions so far have focused on process—how to have the conversation. I’d like to end with a piece of substantive advice. I’ve been in your husband’s position and I recommend cutting back on expenses before you get too far into a financial hole. Find a way to reduce your predictable expenses. For example, rent a smaller apartment, sell your home, stop your cable TV subscription, etc.

Know that you are not alone. Many families are facing your situation. The news describes people dealing with this as “discouraged workers.” I hope I’ve given you some ideas for addressing this discouragement, while pulling your family closer together.

Best wishes,


Kerrying On

Kerrying On: IndepenDunce

In January 1965, after living their entire lives in soggy Western Washington, my mom and dad packed up their belongings and moved to sunny Arizona. After enjoying the dry climate for several months, Mom wrote a letter to her father inviting him to close up the “mom and pop” store that he operated thirteen-hours-a-day, seven-days-a-week and come live with them in Tempe.

“We have a room set aside for you,” Mom explained. “And there’s a beautiful park nearby filled with men playing checkers and chess. I’m sure you’d love it here. Please come live with us.”

“It sounds wonderful,” Grandpa replied in a return letter. “It’s tempting to move to a place where it doesn’t rain most of the time, but I’m afraid I’ll have to decline. You know how hard it is for a man of my age to find work.”

Grandpa was eighty-five years old when he penned that response and he meant every word of it. He couldn’t conceive of not having a job and he certainly couldn’t imagine relying on others. He’d always been self-reliant. Orphaned at a young age, Grandpa was taken in by a relative who didn’t like him very much and, to remove any doubt on the matter, beat him regularly.

One day when Grandpa was ten, his schoolteacher began brutally spanking a small child in his class—there was a lot of that going on. This continued until Grandpa could take it no longer—he pummeled the teacher until the fellow fled the classroom. Needless to say, Grandpa was expelled for his efforts. While his caretakers brooded over what to do next, he packed his belongings into an old flour sack and set out from Dyersville, Iowa to live with his nine-year-old second cousin, May, and her parents—the relatives who had been kind to him when he had met them at a family gathering a few years earlier.

For several days, Grandpa trudged westward. For sustenance he drank from creeks, ate fruit from trees, and stole eggs from chicken coops.

“When we laid eyes on Billy [my grandpa],” May explained to me when I first met her many years later, “my mom and I were sitting on the porch drinking lemonade. At first, I thought it was a stray dog coming down the dirt road that passed in front of our house. I could barely make out a speck in the distance, but then I could see it was a person: it was a boy! The poor thing looked like he was going to collapse from the heat. As he drew close enough to see his face, we realized it was Billy. Mother and I ran to greet him, took him in our arms, and smothered him with kisses.”

After days of lonely effort—ten-year-old Billy had walked across the state of Iowa. Reaching cousin May’s house in Sioux City, he realized he was finally home. For the next eight years, Billy was loved and cared for by his cousins. When he graduated from high school, he left to make a life for himself.

For almost two decades, my grandfather worked at everything from trapping in Minnesota to playing cards on a Mississippi river boat—until he finally met my grandmother. He fell in love, settled down, and raised my mother and her sister.

Grandpa taught my mom to be as independent as he had learned to be throughout his twenty years of bachelorhood. He had learned to cook and sew, and do all things domestic—not as a point of pride, but from sheer necessity. So, along with housekeeping skills, he taught Mom how to swing a hammer and repair the plumbing.

By the time I was twelve, both my mom and granddad had passed the tradition to me. I’d come home from school to find Mom tearing out part of a wall with a crowbar in an effort to get a remodeling project on its feet. I’d then either help her with the project or make dinner before Dad came home to help complete the job.

This independence has served me well. I love the freedom that comes from being able to do things on my own. However, sometimes my desire for self-sufficiency morphs from autonomy to pride and pig-headedness—and that’s when it gets me into trouble. Strengths, taken to the extreme, become weaknesses.

For instance, for our 40th anniversary, my wife and I traveled to Paris where we signed up for a nighttime Segway tour of the city. From the very start, I could see that my wife’s night vision wasn’t up to the challenge of speeding along the Champs-Élysées on what was little more than an electric stick. Every few minutes, she’d zoom perilously close to a pillar or wall and I’d shout out a warning. But I didn’t dare ask to stop and return to home base because it would have ended the tour for everyone. So we continued on despite my nagging fear that something bad was about to happen.

And then it happened. Louise careened off a pillar, flew through the air, crashed to the cobblestone, and cracked her pelvis. For the next three days, I fretted and fumed over how to get her home safely. She could travel without it causing harm, but it hurt so much . . . well, I just didn’t know what to do.

After two days of fruitless worrying, and out of utter desperation, I finally approached our hotel manager and said something I almost never say.
“I need your help,” I nervously whispered. Then I explained our predicament.
“Yes,” the manager responded, “I can see your problem. I’m not sure how to solve it, but don’t worry Mr. Patterson, we will figure it out.”
And he did.

In my case, the independence I learned from my grandfather occasionally transmutes into “indepen-dunce” and keeps me from asking others for their assistance, even when I need it. Had I stopped our tour group and explained—”My wife and I need to return, but I also don’t want to disrupt the tour. Do you have any ideas on how to achieve that?”—I’m sure the guide and other tourists would have come up with five different solutions.

I know I’m not alone in my misunderstanding of self-reliance. At work, employees routinely avoid asking for help because they fear it might make them look weak. Perhaps you’ve seen a newly promoted boss refuse to say “I don’t know” because she’s a supervisor and believes that means she’s supposed to know everything.

For over sixty years, I’ve honed my abilities to stand on my own—as if that’s life’s one true measure of success. Since I learned independence at my grandfather’s knee, it’s not something I’m going to simply let go of—nor could I. Fortunately, that’s not required. I simply need to couple independence with an equal desire to both seek and give assistance. Stopping and asking others for help is not a sign of weakness or a character flaw. It’s a sign that we need each other. And that’s a good thing.

So, here’s to taking the dunce out of independence.


Digital Divisiveness

VitalSmarts’ new research study shows that 89% of participants surveyed report damaged relationships as a result of the insensitive or inappropriate use of technology. And yet, most suffer silently.

According to the study of 2,025 people, 9 out of 10 report that at least once a week, their friends or family members stop paying attention to them in favor of something happening on their digital devices. And 1 in 4 say Electronic Displays of Insensitivity (EDIs) have caused a serious rift with a friend or family member.

So what do we do when confronted with such blatant EDIs? According to the research, most of us do nothing. Specifically, 1 in 3 people admit to coping with EDIs by simply ignoring them.

However, what happens when repeat offenders are your spouse, child, best friend, or coworker? Even with close relationships, people still struggle to speak up. In fact, nearly 2 out of 3 have no idea how to effectively reduce the impact of others’ inappropriate use of technology.

Those who say nothing give their silent approval of insensitive and bad behavior. So next time you’re face-to-face with an EDI offender, use your crucial conversations skills to restore civility without damaging common courtesy.

Here are five tips for getting started.

1. Take the high road. Some EDIs are urgent or necessary so assume the best intentions. Empathetically say: “That sounds important. I can come back later if you need to respond to that call or text.”

2. Spell it out. Specificity leads to results. Rather than making vague requests, set specific boundaries. Say: “We need your full attention in this meeting, so please turn off your cell phone.”

3. Illuminate the impact. Describe the consequences of an EDI rather than blast your judgments about another’s moral compass. Say: “Your screen light is disturbing my experience of the performance. Would you please turn it off? Thank you.”

4. Take heart. Don’t measure your influence by whether or not people immediately comply. Your intervention registers as disapproval and helps in the slow establishing of new norms.

5. Let it go. If you’ve employed every tactic and the offender fails to comply, let it go. Unless the situation will continue for an extended period of time or your safety is at risk, you’re better off just moving on.

View the results of our study in the infographic below or click here to download a copy.