Crucial Conversations QA

How to Advocate for Your Needs With Your Spouse

Dear Joseph,

I love my wife dearly and enjoy spending our dinners and late nights together after our long work days and putting the kids to sleep. However, I have learned after careful experimenting, over a few weeks now, that my wife has endless spunk, energy, and interest in telling me what is on her mind—mostly work-related issues—and literally falls ill once I begin to share mine. For multiple nights, I have listened to her speak with zest for over an hour and then when I attempt to share a thought, she says she is too tired, it is too late, remembers a sale, a forgotten chore or task, gets pains, needs a drink, a sweater, etc. So, I let my thoughts slide. But, in due time, she finds her way back to sharing what’s on her mind. Once again, I’ll listen and try again to share a thought of my own and like clockwork, on comes the pain, tiredness, thirst, and anything to end it—until she starts back on her own thoughts. How would you handle it?

Signed,
Shunned

Dear Shunned,

I’ve got good news. While some conversations have a low likelihood of success and a high likelihood of turmoil, I predict good things for yours. Here’s why:

  • You “love your wife dearly.” The fact that your disappointment has not turned into disconnection gives you the kind of emotional climate within which she might be able to open up with you.
  • You are catching it relatively early. Many people put off addressing issues until they are good and mad. Or they wait until the patterns—and their reactions to them—are so entrenched that mutual stories and justifications get deeply ingrained. You say you have been experimenting for “a few weeks.” Good for you!
  • You have facts and frequency. You have good, concrete examples to share with her so she can understand the topic you are raising, and that seem to be circumspect about describing the frequency of the behavior without exaggeration.

The mistake you’re making is that you continue to address content rather than pattern. In other words, you’re attempting to open up conversations about your own thoughts and feelings but not addressing your real concern: the fact that she diverts the conversation when you make these attempts. That is the crucial conversation you need to hold.

The predictor of your success is your ability to come from a place of love, courage, and curiosity. Love—in that you see the goodness in your wife. Courage—in that you are willing to advocate for your own needs as strongly as you respond to hers. Curiosity—in that you have no idea why she is doing what she is doing. Surrender any stories, speculation, and judgments you may have, and enter the conversation like a caring scientist—wanting to understand her behavior without personalizing it.

You might get it going as follows, “Sweetheart, I have noticed something in our conversations over the past few weeks that I’m really curious about. It involves how you respond when I begin to talk about some of my thoughts and feelings. When you feel comfortable doing so, I’d like to describe what I’ve seen and try to understand if there is something going on for you—or that you see in me—when this happens. When can we do that?”

Notice how I ended the invitation. I am trying to give her enough information that she doesn’t feel blind-sided. But I’m also assuming the very pattern you describe might emerge as you offer this invitation. That’s why I’m suggesting ending it with a request for an appointment, not an immediate demand. Hopefully, that gives her enough emotional flexibility to time it according to her needs.

If she fails to respond, I suggest you make two more attempts using largely the same script—so she sees that this is important enough to you that you are willing to lovingly, courageously, and curiously advocate for your need to have the conversation.

If, after the third attempt, she similarly fails to respond, you have a decision to make. You need to take responsibility for your own needs. If being able to share equally in conversation is important to you, you will need to move the conversation to the relationship level. This means that you need to let her know that this affects you to such a degree that you must find a way to address it. Be open to options she suggests. Perhaps she would prefer to do so with the help of a counselor, at a different time of day, in a different setting. But be sure to let her know that this is important enough that you want to find a way to discuss it.

I am almost as curious as you are about what is going on. I suspect when you create enough safety and demonstrate enough sincerity in desiring the conversation, you will learn something important that will help you better connect with your wonderful wife.

Sincerely,
Joseph

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Crucial Accountability QA

Don’t Agree On The Facts? How to Dialogue Anyway

Dear David,

As a certified trainer, I want to be prepared to answer students’ questions. In talking about separating facts from stories, the question came up: “What if people disagree about what each person said?” For example, I say to my son: “You said you would pick up milk on the way home.” He responds with: “I never said that.” Obviously, situations at work are more high stakes than picking up milk, but I’d love some advice on what to do when the facts are disputed.

Fact or Fiction

Dear Fact or Fiction,

Great question. In most disagreements, we expect our facts to be accepted—at least if we’ve stripped them of any conclusions, judgments, or stories. The idea is that facts are facts because they can be measured, witnessed, and replicated by anyone. Facts should be an area of agreement both parties can build on. That’s why our STATE skill is all about Starting with Facts.

However, as your example shows, people don’t always agree about the facts. I’ll suggest four different situations that result in factual disputes and outline strategies for dealing with each.

1. Trust Is at Risk. The high-stakes situation you describe with your son isn’t about milk. It’s about trust. If you don’t frame the problem correctly, you’ll end up talking about the wrong facts. Fortunately, there is a tool you can use to determine which aspect of a problem to address. We call the tool CPR.

  • C stands for Content. By “content” we mean the immediate incident or presenting problem. You’d have a content issue if your main concern is the missing milk. If this was a one-time occurrence, you might accept your son’s version of the facts. Maybe you only thought he said he’d pick up the milk.
  • P stands for Pattern. This is the conversation if your concern is for the “pattern” of disputed facts. You’d have a pattern issue if your son has repeatedly denied agreements you thought you had. You can imagine mishearing once, but not multiple times. The facts would include two or three instances of these discrepancies. Beyond these facts, you’d add your opinion that these instances fit together as a pattern.
  • R stands for Relationship. This is the conversation if your real concern is the “relationship.” You’d have a relationship issue if the incident or pattern has caused you to question whether you can trust your son. Your misgivings are a fact that your son needs to hear and address.

The mistake most people make is to focus on content—the facts related to a single incident—when their real concern is with the pattern or relationship. A related mistake is to allow the other person to drag a pattern or relationship conversation back to the details of each individual incident. When a conversation begins to get sidetracked by details, I use a script such as, “I don’t want to get into the details of any single incident. Instead, I want to focus on the overall pattern and how it affects our relationship.”

2. Trust Is Low. When trust is low and you don’t trust each other’s facts, you need verification—an agreement about how facts will be substantiated.

These kinds of verification procedures are very costly. They move you from “handshake deals” to “legal contracts” and from “self policing” to “external enforcement.”

Here is an example of verification in an environment of low trust: I was facilitating a negotiation exercise with an MBA class at Stanford and two of the teams were struggling with trust. Then one of the students threw his car keys on the table and declared, “If the instructor says I’ve lied, then your team gets my car.” His ploy worked. The two teams reached an agreement, he lived up to his side of the deal—and he got to keep his car.

3. It’s Debate, Not Dialogue. Dialogue is about adding facts to a Pool of Shared Meaning. Debate is about using facts to win an argument. When people begin to value winning over finding the truth, they use facts as pawns in their game. You begin to see them cherry picking, distorting, and denying the facts.

When you see debate, try to get back to dialogue. Dialogue requires two elements: A Mutual Purpose that both parties see as more important than any particular disagreement, and Mutual Respect that is felt by all sides. If you have a Mutual Purpose, use it to reframe the debate as dialogue. If you don’t have a Mutual Purpose, seek to find or invent one. And, in any case, demonstrate Respect.

If you can’t move to dialogue, then you’re stuck in a low trust environment where verification is required. Delegate fact-finding to a neutral party, use joint fact-finding, and incur all the costs that verification entails.

4. It’s Complicated. Sometimes it’s not the facts but what the facts add up to that is under dispute. Complex situations almost always entail a more sophisticated theory. The disagreement might be over the theory, not the facts.

In Crucial Conversations, we suggest separating facts—the basic verifiable evidence—from your story. Your story is your theory about what the facts mean. With complex issues—for example, “Will this policy improve learning?” or, “Has this change in taxes produced economic growth?”—the stories/theories are often presented as facts.

Sometimes, the theory deserves to be treated as a fact, because, like the theory of gravity, it is so thoroughly validated (of course, even in this example, we don’t know all there is to know about gravity).

Other times, the theory is still unsettled or disputed. Or, it’s settled and treated as fact by experts but has not gained public acceptance.

In these situations, it’s still very helpful to separate facts from stories. For example, it’s a fact that streets in Miami Beach flood far more today than they did ten years ago. Citizens there don’t need to agree on climate change or global warming to know they have a problem on their hands.

I hope these examples help you answer the questions you get.

Best of luck,
David

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Crucial Conversations QA

How to Help Others Get Along

Dear Steve,

My husband and twenty-eight-year-old stepson get into arguments that are emotionally hurtful to both of them. They don’t listen to each other, and just yell, blame, and berate each other. In the past, I have stayed out of it and let them “duke it out.” But I don’t like how it makes me feel or the spirit of contention it brings to our home. I don’t think I would let them physically duke it out and I think the emotional damage is as harmful as a physical fight. What can I do as a bystander to help them address their difference of opinion in a healthier way? Should I address it during the heat of the moment or try to teach them skills when the emotions aren’t so raw? Or maybe a combination? Please help.

Stuck in the Middle

Dear Stuck,

A popular tenet of the Kaizen method teaches that it is better to have the wrong solution to the right problem, than the right solution to the wrong problem.

One of my very early clients began every interaction with this oft-quoted phrase. Over time, I began to mature in my problem-solving approach. In the beginning, I believed that as long as I had the right solution, everything would work itself out. Later, I realized that in order to get to the right solution, I had to make sure I started with the right problem. I’ve since discovered that having the right timing for the right solution is also important. Sounds like you’re trying to figure out that third element.

I don’t think people realize how difficult it is to watch the conditions of respect and civility erode right in front of you. Like you, most choose to stay out of it—and it’s not usually a case of bystander apathy. Usually, these are well-intentioned individuals who suffer from bystander agony. They’d like to step in and stop the mayhem, but just aren’t sure how to do so. It turns out, it’s only slightly more painful to be involved directly in a conflict than to watch it happen.

So, when and how to intervene? To explore that, let’s take a look at a story I received permission to share with you. It comes from one of my co-workers, Dax, who found himself in a very similar situation to your husband and stepson. Read on to see how Dax broke out of the cycle that caused his family pain.

“Almost 15 years ago, when I was young, my father and I fought constantly. Both of us were bullheaded, aggressive, and had no time for anyone else’s opinions.

This went on my entire childhood and progressively got worse. We reached the point where we actively avoided each other, or risked an all-out war.

One day, my dad came home with a book someone gave him at work. It was called Crucial Conversations. He asked me if I would read it with him.

We spent the next few weeks sitting down and reading the book together, chapter by chapter. After finishing each chapter, we discussed what we read.

Our daily battles suddenly turned into crucial conversations. When we started getting heated, we asked each other, ‘Why would a reasonable, rational person do or say what you just said?’ We laid out the facts rather than told ourselves a story about what we thought the other had said.

After just a few months, we went from actively avoiding each other, to having a real relationship not strained by misconceptions and hurtful words.

At present, our relationship is stronger than ever and we rely on each other equally for guidance with our day-to-day crucial moments.”

So, what should we learn from Dax’s story? Upon first read, it’s easy to see how two people benefitted from a solution that appeared to resolve their problems. But there’s also a subtler lesson. There was a third party, a not so apathetic or agony-ridden bystander who intervened—a co-worker gave Dax’s dad a book. That book turned out to be the right solution for the right problem delivered at the right time.

So often, our efforts fall short because we deliver our solution at the wrong time. We miss, or misinterpret, when the teachable moment is. This coworker didn’t try to offer the solution in the middle of a heated argument. He or she shared a solution in a moment removed from conflict. My personal bias is to let conflict play out unless it’s leading to serious and/or long-term relationship damage, in which case it’s okay to step-in. But just because you’ve paused the interaction doesn’t mean that’s the most teachable moment for those directly involved in the conflict. Remember, emotions are chemical while thoughts are electrical. You’re likely much further ahead in your crucial conversations thought process than either of the chemically-overpowered individuals you’d like to coach. Be patient. It takes time for the effects of the chemicals to subside so the brain can think clearly again. Look for a time when the person or persons can be reflective and open to suggestion.

Once you’ve found the right time, here are some ideas on how to get the best response.

I’ve found it to be overwhelming when I’ve been handed a book that contains the solution to my problem. I’d like to get some relief, but don’t want to wade through an entire book to figure out what I should do. So, don’t yield to the temptation to dump whole chapters or highlighted passages without any direction. I’ve found it helpful to point people to a specific idea or skill. You can use a book to do so, but take a little time to help them navigate the content. This way they experience the value of the content along with any tips or insights you have about application opportunities.

In these situations, it’s also helpful to work out a Mutual Purpose. Many of you who’ve found yourself in this situation are probably thinking, “but that’s the problem—we have no mutual purpose!” The beauty of mutual purpose is you don’t have to agree in order to experience it. The whole approach to finding mutual purpose is by creating an interim purpose. “Let’s see if we can jointly come up with a solution to our conversation process challenges because we don’t seem to have mutual purpose in regard to the topic that’s causing conflict.” It helps people experience what having a mutual purpose feels like—the shift from what “I” really want to what “we” really want.

I’m going to close with another over-quoted, yet applicable adage: it takes a village. Or in this case, it takes one well-intentioned bystander to offer the right solution in the teachable moment. I hope you can find this with the relationships you value most. Good luck, and stay focused on what you really want.

Best,
Steve

Want to master these crucial skills?
Attend one of our public training workshops in a city near you. Learn more at www.vitalsmarts.com/events.