My wife and I have this friend who avoids crucial conversations. It got to a point where so much bad stuff had built up and festered that this individual “put her foot down” and told us “we are changing our friendship,” and “this is how it has to be.” We’ve witnessed a lot of self-absorbed behaviors, like dominating conversations, trying to redirect conversation to what she wants to talk about, and completely ignoring us at social events. Boundaries are being crossed, yet the boundaries are very ambiguous. My wife and I have both read Crucial Conversations. I understand how to create safety to have a conversation and establish Mutual Purpose. But how do we communicate our expectations moving forward, especially if she tries to dictate the terms of our relationship?
Dear Feeling Bound,
As you might suspect, this type of situation requires a significant, sustained effort to address. So before you decide to resolve it, you should ask yourself whether this is a friend you want to have in your life. As you consider the question, I encourage you not to say “yes” just because you’ve been friends up to this point. It’s okay to allow your relationship to change and shift.
If you decide not to remain friends, advice from Maya Angelou might be helpful: “If you don’t like something, change it. If you can’t change it, change your attitude.” A “no” means you can stop reading here and back away from the relationship. If, on the other hand, you’ve answered “yes” to the question in question, read on.
First of all, I’m glad you found Crucial Conversations. It offers practical approaches that can make a difference. Let’s start with one skill from the Mutual Purpose skillset: Invent Mutual Purpose. You arrive at this skill once you’ve committed to discover what the other party wants and find a mutual purpose. At this point, you’re ready to define boundaries—though it’s good to double check that you indeed understand what the other person really wants before inventing mutual purpose. And when you’re “inventing,” you’re not just making up purpose arbitrarily. You’re combining your wants with the other’s to come up with something new for the relationship.
Inventing requires effort. It’s not always as simple as merging your individual purposes into one purpose that automatically becomes mutual. It often requires some time to work out. Those who are best at it tend to shift to higher-level, longer-term goals when they become stuck or tempted to compromise, whether values, time, or overall “wants” for the relationship. In practice, this means not getting caught up in negotiating requests like “keep every other Friday open for us,” but rather moving to a higher value like “how can we respect one another’s other commitments and desires and still nurture the relationship?”
A little side-note on compromise. Compromise isn’t necessarily bad, but people often fail to find a more powerful, longer-lasting purpose when they compromise quickly. Working through this all will allow you both to modify and alter your purpose until you both feel good about it. It will also you give you the chance to revisit our initial question: Is this a relationship worth keeping? You may find that your purpose is how to distance yourselves in the healthiest way possible.
Now, if this person doesn’t want to find mutual purpose, it may help to make visible to her what’s currently invisible. Sometimes people don’t see the impact of their behavior, so they continue without regard to how it affects others. You can help see the effects of their behavior by pointing out natural consequences. People don’t always notice all the consequences of their behavior. They act, others respond in a desired way, and that’s all they see. But usually there are multiple consequences, not all of them good.
To successfully inspire a person to change his or her behavior with this skill, you need to show how their behavior is leading to consequences that they find undesirable. In practice, it might sound like, “You may not be aware of this, but when you allow a problem to build up and refuse to talk about it, it makes the problem harder to deal with because there’s a lot more stress and emotions that everyone has to sift through.” You may have to point out different natural consequences before you discover the one, or few, that resonates with the person. And they may need some time to think of things before they are ready to respond.
If you approach this conversation with the intent to understand and love, you’ll compensate for less-than-perfect word choices you might make in the process.
Best of luck,