Crucial Conversations QA

Resolving a Sibling Rivalry

Dear David,

My father passed away last summer after a six-month battle from mesothelioma. I was named as financial power and my sister as medical power of attorney in my parents’ will. My older brother went ballistic. Since then, he’s tried taking control of everything surrounding my Dad, my parent’s house, and now my mom. My mom was recently hospitalized and had back surgery. He tried to persuade the doctors to communicate only to him. He’s blown up at my sister, my mom, and me multiple times. His response is always, “No one listens to me!” or, “You’re not understanding me!” How can your books and ideas help this situation?

Signed,
House Divided

Dear Divided,

It’s sad when a family tragedy divides family members. This is a time when your mother needs support and the strife you describe is probably very hard on her. I’ll begin with a caution you’ve heard from us before: You can’t control your brother’s behavior or his feelings. What you can control are your own thoughts and actions.

Determine what you really want.
What are your hopes for the long term? Do you want a close relationship with your brother? Or will it be enough if you can get him to cooperate in your mother’s care and her affairs? I’m not suggesting you will be able to achieve either of these outcomes. You can’t control the way your brother feels and acts. But knowing what you really want will help you determine your own actions.

Understand the story that drives the feelings. Your brother went ballistic when he wasn’t given a greater role in your parents’ will. It’s important that you understand why that action provoked such a strong reaction. He probably saw it as a slap in the face—a sign of disrespect. When he says, “No one listens to me,” it makes me think he’s telling himself a story of ongoing disrespect.

Establish Mutual Respect. In Crucial Conversations, we say that, “Respect is like air.” When it’s there, you don’t even notice it. But when it’s not, it’s all you can think about. Does this sound like your brother? Is there a way to prove to your brother that you and your family respect him?

Let me imagine a tough scenario: Suppose your brother has a history of drug abuse, stealing from family members, and lying, and this is why your parents didn’t make him their executor. Does your brother still deserve respect? Of course he does! Every human deserves respect. But notice that the facts of the situation will determine how you will demonstrate that respect.

Demonstrate respect. There is no best way to demonstrate respect, so I’ll suggest a few that might be relevant to your situation. I’ll start by describing an idea that requires a great deal of trust and end with a few that require less.

    • If your role allows it, give your brother an accountability he can own. This action would demonstrate your trust. Of course, don’t delegate a responsibility unless you believe he can, and will, master it.
    • Involve him in your decisions. Ask for his help in establishing decision criteria, timelines, budgets, actions, etc.
    • Give him information in advance about decisions you will make. Clarify decision criteria, timelines, budgets, actions you are taking, etc.

Establish ground rules based on Mutual Purpose. In your question, you described several negative behaviors—taking control, excluding family members, and blowing up. You need to establish ground rules that prevent these from recurring. These ground rules will work best if your brother buys in to them. In fact, you’d ideally like him to play a role in creating them.

These ground rules should stem from your Mutual Purpose, which I believe is “Doing what’s best for your mother.” I think that you, your brother, and your sister would all agree on that as your key purpose.

If you find that this is your common ground, then ask the next question: “How should we act toward each other and toward mom to make sure we do what is best for her? What actions should we START doing to improve her experience? What actions should we STOP doing? And what actions should we CONTINUE doing?”

This START, STOP, and CONTINUE exercise should be inclusive. I’m sure your brother will suggest actions you should START or STOP doing as well. Again, make this a respect-building exercise by listening and including his ideas.

I hope some of these suggestions will work for you and your family.

Best,
David

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David Maxfield

David Maxfield is a New York Times bestselling author, keynote speaker, and leading social scientist for organizational change. For thirty years, David has delivered engaging keynotes at prestigious venues including Stanford and Georgetown Universities. David’s work has been translated into twenty-eight languages, is available in thirty-six countries, and has generated results for three hundred of the Fortune 500.
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7 thoughts on “Resolving a Sibling Rivalry”

  1. How your brother acts towards your mom’s medical team should be addressed. It is very detrimental to her care for them to be put in the middle of this drama.

    It sounds as if he may feel guilty about something. Perhaps that can come out in the discussion. It also sounds like he may be feeling very left out and I hope you can all come to a resolution.

    I’m so glad that I have the brother I have and we have had no strife over our parents’ care or estate. Good luck!

  2. I am so sorry that your family is experiencing this sitatuion. Dad and Mom could have picked you and sister simples because they wanted the oldest/youngest, male/female, whatever input. I agree that you and sister should ask for brother’s input. Perhaps you could have a monthly/quarterly/whatever meeting to discuss issues. I’m in a sitatuion where I need to give someone medical and financial power of attorney and am looking at my nieces and nephews. The nieces are all married with children and more involved in my life. They are going to be selected over a single person who didn’t have to juggle lots of issues.

  3. This brother’s behavior is probably why your father chose you and your sister instead. You owe your brother no explanation, since it was not your decision – you can’t speak for your father. However, it sounds like you may have to take steps to get a restraining order to protect your mother and yourselves from his violent behavior. Please see this for what it is – violence. And do whatever you need to do to protect your mom and yourselves.

  4. Just a detail: apostrophes matter. Both the letter and the response mention the “parents’ will.” But only one parent died, so only one will (“the parent’s will” or “the father’s will”) matter at this point. The mother’s will would be a separate document. The content of the mother’s will may have become known to the siblings, but it is still subject to change at the mother’s discretion. I don’t know how that tidbit may affect family dynamics, but I suspect it would be an important factor to consider and deal with.

  5. Love and benefit from Crucial Skills! I read every one!

    This one has a line in it, however, that I either don’t understand or with which I disagree:

    “Every human deserves respect”

    I think every human deserves to be treated respectfully, but I don’t know what respect means if every human deserves respect. The brother you described – “Suppose your brother has a history of drug abuse, stealing from family members, and lying” – is not a person I would respect, nor would I have reason to feel I earned the respect of others if those behaviors described me.

  6. Okay, Greg. I agree. I prefer your phrasing, “every human deserves to be treated respectfully.” I was raised in the Quaker faith, a faith that has very few “beliefs” other than “there is a bit that’s good in every person.” When I was about 13 a group of us challenged the clerk of our meeting as to whether that was really true. We cited a number of notorious figures to make our point. Eventually, the clerk, who was a fairly renowned biologist, replied: “I don’t know if it’s true or not, but I choose to act as if it is.”

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