Dear Crucial Skills,
Over the past year, my wife has developed an unhealthy pattern of caring less and less about her physical appearance and is now considerably overweight. Whenever I try to discuss the potential impact on her quality of life, she becomes very defensive and says, “You don’t love me anymore.” I counter and say, “Actually I do love you and am very concerned about your health.” I’m concerned about her being overweight as well as her lack of sleep. She works various shifts in her job and continues to be an extremely devout mother to our twenty-three-year old daughter who suffers from a terrible disease. But I believe she is sacrificing her well-being. I even tried to explain that soon she will be unable to provide for our daughter if her health deteriorates. What can I do to better approach this topic?
Dear Frustrated Spouse,
Your question provoked a question of my own: when does a crucial conversation become an influence challenge?
Here is what I mean by that: with any crucial conversation, our goal should be dialogue—sharing our perspective and hearing and understanding others’ perspectives. If the goal of a crucial conversation is to convince or compel someone to see things our way or come to agreement with us, we will often do a great job of explaining our point of view and a poor job of understanding theirs.
My guess is that your goal, like that of most concerned spouses, is to help your wife recognize the damage she is doing to her health and help her take steps to improve her health. In short, the goal is to have her see the situation as you see it. And this is the tricky part of a crucial conversation, because if that is your goal, it often doesn’t go as well. When we see a loved one traveling down a life path that we view as destructive or harmful, it is natural that we would want to talk to them and convince them to change. That is appropriate and loving. But, it is also not within our control. We can raise the issue with caring and candor, but then we must acknowledge that others have a different perspective and may not want to change. This is when a crucial conversation becomes an influence challenge.
While I imagine how disappointed you must be that your wife does not see the situation as you do, that doesn’t mean you are left without resources with which to help her. The reality is you are influencing her right now. People are social animals and we are all influenced by the social and structural forces around us. Right now, there is a huge force influencing your wife’s behavior—her commitment to caring for your daughter. There are other forces as well, including you. This means you can choose to look at your own behavior and consider ways in which you can be an influence force for good in her life.
Let me give you an example. Brian Wansink, author of Mindless Eating and Slim By Design (and good friend of VitalSmarts), has shown in his research that 72 percent of the eating decisions made in a home are made by what he calls the nutritional gatekeeper. This is the person in the home who purchases the food and plans and prepares the meals. Consider what would happen if you became the nutritional gatekeeper in your home. What a blessing that would be in your wife’s life as she struggles to care for your daughter and balance the other stressors in her life. Imagine coming to her and saying, “Sweetheart, I will take this burden off your shoulders and handle of all our food needs.” Then, it would be up to you to plan and prepare nutritious and delicious meals that your wife will enjoy and that will lead to her improved health.
This is just one of the many ways you could help change and redirect the sources of influence in your wife’s life. The point is not that this is the magic bullet answer for you in your situation. You will need to figure that out for yourself. The big idea is that too often we have a crucial conversation with someone and think that the goal is to get them to recognize the problem so that they will change their behavior. Sometimes that works and sometimes it doesn’t. When it doesn’t, it is up to us to allow them their agency and decide what kind of an influence we want to be in their lives.
Best of luck,