Crucial Conversations QA

Weathering Strained Holiday Relationships

The following article was first published December 1, 2015.

Dear Emily,

Every year I have the same argument with my mother and husband. Every year, my mother demands that we spend Christmas Day at her house while my husband, and father of our two children, wants to stay home. We usually go to her house. This year is no exception but we have an addition to our household. My husband’s mother has moved in with us and it will be her first Christmas with her grandchildren. Her health is failing and travel is extremely difficult for her. My mother, who lives two miles from me, knows this. After the usual badgering, I finally gathered the courage to say that we would not leave his mother alone at our house on Christmas Day. I offered to have the entire family come to our house instead, either to spend time with her on Christmas Eve, or on Christmas Day. My mother will not accept this and has decided to throw a temper tantrum. So, we are staying home.

My question is, how do I permanently stop this argument? It has made me hate Christmas.

Sincerely,
The Grinch

Dear Grinch,

Ah, the holidays. A season fraught with expectation, disappointment, and heartache. I vote we cancel Christmas this year! Who’s with me?

Okay, okay, I don’t actually want to cancel Christmas. I love Christmas. But reading your question did touch a place in my heart that harbors a bit of dread for the stressful holiday season and brings to mind the plaintive cry, “Why can’t we all just get along?” We all know how stressful the holiday season can be. However, your situation is not really about Christmas at all, is it? It is not even about a conversation. Your challenge is the health and well-being of a critical relationship.

The answer to the question you ask is straightforward. How do you permanently stop this argument? Stop talking to your mother. Ouch, right? But that would stop the argument. Don’t worry though, this column doesn’t end here. Instead, I am going to take a guess that your question is something more than how do I permanently stop this argument. I think your question may in fact be “How do I stop this argument in such a way that honors both my mother and me and also strengthens our relationship?” Are you starting to see how this isn’t about Christmas at all?

When you reframe the question, you start to get at the heart of what you really, really want. Yes, right now what you really, really want is for your mother to: 1) grow up and be an adult, 2) recognize that she is acting selfishly, 3) understand that you need to meet the needs of your mother-in-law and that this relationship is also important to you, and finally, 4) not make such a big deal about something that doesn’t really matter in the grand scheme of things. Am I getting this right?

In Crucial Conversations, we teach people to prepare for a conversation by Starting with Heart. By getting really, really clear on what the intent is. We do this by asking ourselves, “What do I really want? For myself? For the other person? For the relationship?” The challenge with this question is most of the time our first answer is the wrong answer. We are quick to jump in with what we really want right now. It may be to win, to save face, to be right, to have our mother tell us we are right and of course we can have Christmas dinner at our house. But if you stop there, you will likely miss what it is you really want, because after all, this isn’t about Christmas.

Over the years, I have trained myself to ask the question four or five times before I settle into an answer. The internal dialogue might go something like this:

Me: “Okay, what do I really want here?”
Mini Me: “I want this argument to stop. I want to enjoy the holiday and I want my mom to recognize that it is not just about her. I am trying to balance a lot of demands.”
Me: “And why do you want that? Why is that important to you?”
Mini Me: “Because I need my mom to recognize that I have a family too and it can’t just be about her tradition and her view of what should happen.”
Me: “And why can’t it?”
Mini Me: “Because I am an adult and a mother too. I need my mom to see me as such so that we can have a meaningful relationship. I love her and I want to meet her needs. I also want her to recognize that I have grown up and that families change over time. I want to relate to her as an adult, not just as her child.”

Asking yourself, “What do I really want?” is a great start but it may not be enough. You may need to ask yourself several times to get clear on what you want and what the core issue is for you.

Related to starting with heart and asking what we really want, for ourselves, for the other person, and for the relationship, is the concept of Mutual Purpose. Again, in Crucial Conversations, we teach creating Mutual Purpose as a skill to increase the level of psychological safety within the dialogue so you can discuss any content. And, because all relationships at their heart are built by a series of conversations over time, sometimes Mutual Purpose becomes much more than a safety skill—it becomes the entire dialogue.

Creating Mutual Purpose starts by understanding what purpose we are bringing to the dialogue. In this case, we have already done that heavy lifting as we dug deep into our heart to find out what we really wanted. I really want a relationship with my mom that reflects my adulthood. I don’t want to stay stagnant in a parent-child dynamic I have outgrown.

Once we understand what purpose we are bringing, we need to understand the purpose the other person brings. What is it that my mother wants? Here again, the key will be to dig deep and not accept a surface-level answer. Human beings act in both predictable and unpredictable ways for one reason—we are trying to have our needs met. Those needs may be physical, financial, emotional, spiritual, or something else entirely. But ultimately, we are driven to act in order to meet a perceived need. So, another way of asking what your mother wants or what her purpose is, is to ask, “What need is my mother trying to meet by acting in this way? What need is met by hosting a traditional family Christmas dinner at her home?”

My guess is that you already have a pretty good idea of the answer. After all, you have known your mother all your life and have likely developed some insight about her. Think about your answer to that question of what needs your mother is trying to meet for herself by requiring everyone to show up for Christmas dinner. Got it in your head? Good. Now write it down. Done that? Good. Now tear it up and throw it away. Seriously. Don’t guess what your mother needs. Ask her. Ask her a couple of times in a couple of ways. Probe with curiosity, validation, and sensitivity. Really try to understand. So often we jump into a dialogue around purpose assuming we know (or have a pretty good guess) what the other person’s purpose is. We may be right. We may be wrong. It doesn’t matter. Either way, we will have done a disservice to him or her and to the dialogue by making the assumption.

If you want your mother to treat you as an adult, treat her like one by actively trying to understand what lies deep in her heart. What you find may surprise you. And, it will also give you the beginnings of a way forward. Once you understand her need, you can begin to see her actions within the context of that need. It doesn’t mean you will agree with those actions and it doesn’t mean that you will be eating Christmas dinner at her house or even that she will be eating it at your house. But what it does mean is that you can start to explore ideas and options to meet both of your needs.

Best Wishes and Happy Holidays,
Emily

Kerrying On

Sam’s Gift

Gifts come in all shapes, types, and sizes. Some arrive with the sounds and excitement of the holiday season and some do not. Some are beautifully packaged while others aren’t bundled at all because they’re completely intangible. Still others are not only intangible, but when they’re given away, the giver doesn’t even know he’s shared a gift. Imagine that—giving someone a present without knowing you’ve done so. Sounds odd, right? But you’ve done it yourself. Probably lots of times.

My first encounter with such a mysterious exchange took place in September of 1958 when I entered my seventh grade homeroom class for the first time and sat down next to Sam Baker. When our homeroom teacher called for the nomination of classroom officers, Sam raised his hand and eagerly nominated himself for the position of president. I was surprised. What kind of knucklehead nominates himself? Apparently Sam did, but to no benefit. He eventually lost to the immensely affable Caroline Stimpson.

A few minutes later, our teacher wrote his full name (Louie T. Lallas) on the chalkboard. Suspecting that it might be on the final, Dorothy Newman asked Mr. Lallas what the T stood for. Before the seasoned educator could bark his standard answer, “Tough!”, Sam shouted, “Tub-of-lard!”

The earth stood still. Insulting a teacher—and in front of the class—was unthinkable. Since he was mostly kidding (Mr. Lallas wasn’t the least bit tubish), Sam only had to suffer two days of detention. Nevertheless, he still had broken the granddaddy of all rules. He had disrespected an authority figure.

I immediately liked him.

Enough so that it was Sam who accompanied me a few weeks later when the two of us decided to take up tennis. We had become fast friends, and on this particular day, we were on our way to see if the tennis court located behind the Stimpson mansion was open to the public. Rumor had it that the venerable Dr. Stimpson generously allowed the unwashed masses to play on his private court as long as his family members weren’t using it. Sam and I were hoping the rumor was true and the court was open.

The two of us made a curious looking pair as we walked down Garden Street that day. Sam’s outfit included a snappy-looking racket and matching sweater and shorts. I wore frayed cut-off jeans and a hand-me-down T-shirt while carrying a warped wooden racket that once belonged to my grandfather—a racket that had been strung—not with shiny nylon—but with gnarled catgut. Mom assured me that no cats had been harmed in the construction of grandpa’s racket because the strings were made of (get this) sheep intestines. Like that made me feel better. One look at me and you’d have guessed Sam had invited a vagrant to play tennis with him.

As luck would have it, the Stimpson court was free so the two of us merrily hacked away until I saw the back door of the Stimpson’s lavish manor slowly open. Had we been characters in a movie, the background music would have turned ominous. In one quick move, out stepped Caroline, our homeroom class president and the youngest daughter of the good doctor Stimpson. I feared she was about to order us off the grounds and instinctively turned to flee when Sam smiled confidently and told me to wait.

“Hey, guys!” Caroline warmly greeted us. “Would you like to come inside for some lemonade?” I couldn’t believe it. The castle doors were opening.

When we walked into the Stimpson home, it was like entering a lavish movie set. Caroline escorted us into a room that showcased a spectacular hand-carved Brazilian rosewood pool table. Several hundred gilt-tooled, 19th-century, literary masterpieces lined the walls. I was speechless.

Caroline broke the silence by asking a maid dressed in a French embroidered pinafore apron to serve us lemonade. It turns out the “maid” was actually Caroline’s older sister, but we didn’t know it at the time. In any case, I was desperately trying to figure out how to fit into a world of posh tennis ensembles while wearing tattered cut-off jeans and a Mad Magazine T-shirt that had the phrase printed across the front: What, Me Worry?

I had seen swanky estates similar to the Stimpson’s before, but had never imagined what they might look like inside. The Stimpson home was remarkable. It was a place suitable for the Vanderbilts and Kennedys; a place for keen political debate; a place, I figured, I’d never lay eyes on again.

“What did you think of that?” Sam asked as we returned to the court. “It’s probably the coolest house in town.”

“It wasn’t a house,” I replied. “We live in houses. Caroline lives in a mansion.”

“Well, get over it,” Sam added. “One day, I’m going to own a place just like it.”

“How’s that?” I asked.

“Two years from now, when it’s offered, I’ll be taking Latin while you’re taking woodshop. And you know why that is?”

“Because you’re more interested in dead Italians than I am,” I replied.

“No,” Sam continued. “I’ll be studying Latin to prepare myself to go to law school so I can get a job with a big law firm, work my way to the top, and one day buy a beautiful home for my family—maybe even the Stimpson’s place.”

“You can do that? I asked.

“Yup,” Sam answered, “And so can you.”

“Just by taking Latin?”

It had never occurred to me that if I combined well-established plans with the right education and hard work, I could improve my station in life. For my first six years of schooling, my buddies and I had blindly stuck to a foreordained path that would eventually lead to a horrible education (i.e., we thought studying was for nerds) followed by a life of living hand-to-mouth. It was a cherished neighborhood tradition.

Sam, from his view farther up the hill, saw what he wanted from life and was in hot pursuit of a law degree. Better still, his vision and self-assurance were infectious. His brash belief that he could achieve anything he worked to accomplish altered my view of what was attainable—even to a scruffy kid carrying borrowed sheep intestines.

Sam moved to Alaska at the end of that school year, but not before he caused a substantial shift in my worldview. He didn’t lecture me, ridicule my mistakes, mock my naiveté, or act the least bit superior. Instead, Sam gave me the greatest of all gifts—the gift of hope. If the fun-loving kid who nominated himself for class president and daringly called a teacher a “tub-of-lard” could apply himself and become somebody, I could become somebody. No doubt Sam is unaware of the gift he gave me that autumn day on Garden Street. It wasn’t a holiday offering, it wasn’t tangible, and it certainly wasn’t wrapped. Nevertheless, when a new world opened its doors to me, it was Sam’s gift of hope that gave me the courage to cross the threshold.

Gratias Sam. Multas Gratias.

Crucial Conversations QA

The Gift of Forgiveness

The following article was first published on December 13, 2011.

Dear Crucial Skills,

When my grandmother became very ill, my dad and his four siblings struggled to come to an agreement about what was best for their mother. My aunt (the oldest sibling) became very controlling and everyone had a difficult time staying in dialogue with her, including my dad who is exceptional at mastering his stories and building mutual respect and mutual purpose.

This conflict has now ruptured relationships such that after more than thirty years of tradition, we are cancelling my grandma’s family Christmas party. I would like to see my dad and his siblings forgive each other and focus on the needs of my grandmother, who is obviously affected the most. How can I help my family overcome past fights and come together for the holidays?

Signed,
Facilitating Forgiveness

Dear Facilitating Forgiveness,

I was thinking about your question last week while I took my morning run in the National Mall in Washington, DC. As I ran past the wonderful new Martin Luther King memorial, I screeched to a halt in front of a granite inscription that read, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

I’ve ruminated ever since on the implications of that powerful concept for your situation. Here are some thoughts I hope will help:

1. Patience is the most genuine expression of love. The first thing to keep in mind is that you cannot force forgiveness. You can’t compel other people to soften their hearts, examine their own faults, or modify their judgments of others. You have to wait until they want to.

Allowing them to go through the process of challenging their own emotions is an authentic expression of your love for them. It reflects your willingness to patiently wait for the family unity you crave so they can go through the natural process of human growth. Attempting to force the process is more likely to create resistance than reform. Watch—but wait—for signs that others feel some of the loss you feel, then make gentle attempts to help them move forward.

2. Forgiveness is the natural result of a new story. We can’t feel differently toward others until we think differently about them—and ourselves. Forgiveness is difficult because we stay stuck in the story we’ve told ourselves about what happened. As long as we maintain a picture of others’ villainy and our own virtue, we feel morally justified in our anger or frustration. We take delight in the suffering we hope the other person is feeling from our withheld affection because we perversely imagine they deserve to suffer or that the suffering is a learning experience. “Perhaps,” we reason, “this mutual misery will help them see the error of their ways and become a better human being. I’m a wonderful person for helping them have this life-changing experience!”

Until we intentionally examine our own faults and others’ virtues, we feel no need to forgive. The instant we begin this painful but wonderful process, the icy feelings inside us begin to melt. If we continue that process to its natural end, feelings of forgiveness are inevitable. Changing your story is the key to changing your feelings. Don’t try to get others to forgive. Instead, help them to challenge their stories. Forgiveness will follow.

3. We’ll challenge what we think when we change what we want. Given that challenging our stories is a painful process, why would anyone do so? We do it when our motives change. That’s why the first principle of Crucial Conversations is Start with Heart. When your motives change, your behavior follows naturally. People who resist forgiving are sometimes stuck in self-justifying stories—stories that protect them from the pain of reexamining their view of themselves and others. Sadly, the primary motivator that drags our story into the light is the acute experience of the pain of a lost relationship.

Now, I know your question wasn’t about helping yourself forgive, but about facilitating that process in others. So how can we use the principles I outlined above to influence others to forgive? First, don’t rush them. That just distracts them from experiencing the pain that could motivate them to change. Second, acknowledge their pain. Affirm the parts of their story you agree with and the hurt they legitimately feel. Third, invite motivation. Let them know you miss the family gatherings and guess they do, too. Tell them you think there is a way back to the former intimacy if they are open to discussion. Then be patient again. Periodically reaffirm the invitation, but don’t badger. When they’re ready, they’ll let you know.

One of two things might happen if you are patient and supportive. First, your family members may just bury the past and reconnect without resolving anything. Perhaps this is an acceptable compromise if all are happy with it. Second, they may respond to your invitation to help. If they take the second route, this will be your big opportunity for a crucial conversation. I’d suggest you invite them to share their story, then request the chance to share a different view of things. Be clear up front that your intent is to help them see what happened differently so they can feel differently, and gain their consent for this process before you dive into it. If they seem resistant, withdraw and assure them you aren’t trying to force your view on them. If they are going to change their minds, they will have to invite your influence in doing so.

Our judgments or demands of others won’t drive out their stories—just like hate cannot drive out hate and darkness cannot drive out darkness—only love and light can do that. While I don’t think there is any special brilliance in these modest suggestions, I hope you discern the heart of them—patience, love, and an appeal to what they really want is the only path to helping people reappraise their stories and reconnect with loved ones.

Happy holidays and peace to you and yours,
Joseph