I like to think of myself as someone who knows how to have crucial conversations. I’ve read Crucial Conversations, attended the training, and recently, I became a certified trainer for my organization. However, I can never seem to make headway with my teenage daughter. We disagree about almost everything—when homework should be done, what kind of media is acceptable, and the smartphone, well, everything from apps to time spent seems to surface an argument that turns into a fight. Whenever a conflict arises, I mentally review the Crucial Conversations steps, determined to get them right. I feel like I use the skills correctly, but to no avail. Where am I going wrong?
What Am I Missing
Earlier this year, I married someone who has yet to attend Crucial Conversations training. After dedicating the last twelve years of my professional life and a huge amount of energy to the mission of Crucial Conversations, I probably should have made the training mandatory. Fortunately, my husband is good at having difficult conversations, at least those we have together, because he has good intent. Regardless of his skill level (and let’s be honest, at times it is not high, bless his heart), my husband’s intent is always true and good. And that comes through. Our conversations have reminded me of this principle: intent often trumps skill.
Unfortunately, this principle holds true in reverse. Why is that unfortunate? Because it means that no matter your skill level (and I like to think mine is high), intent can, and often will, trump skill. I’m not saying that having good intent can replace skills (everyone can benefit from learning HOW to effectively dialogue when stakes are high); I am saying that having all the skills can never replace intent. Let me give you an example.
Some time ago, I had a crucial conversation with a vendor. There was a pattern of gaps that was starting to impact our professional relationship. It was bothering me, so I knew I needed to address it. I invited this person to lunch, and I started by sharing my good intent. I wanted the relationship to work for both of us, and for that to happen I thought it was important we discuss this pattern of gaps. I then laid it all out for her. She was amazing. She accepted my feedback with grace and composure. She asked what she could do differently, and (this is the moment when my true intent became apparent) I replied, “Start delivering on your commitments. When you tell me you are going to do something, do it.” Ouch. I compounded my failure of intent with a failure of observation. She took the feedback so well, I assumed our conversation was a success.
Fast forward a couple of weeks. I was on the phone with this vendor and the topic of our previous conversation came up. She thanked me for the feedback, which speaks volumes about her humility. Feeling I should reciprocate, I asked how I could better serve our professional relationship. She paused. Then she shared what she had felt during our previous conversation.
Her experience of that conversation was quite different than mine. She had perceived my intent as “I have shared the problem; now YOU go and fix it.” And she was right. It didn’t matter that I had stated my path, made contrasting statements, paraphrased, and used all the other skills we teach in Crucial Conversations. It didn’t even matter that, prior to our conversation, I had asked myself what I really wanted for me, for her, and for the relationship. What mattered in that moment was, without realizing it, my motives had shifted. As I think back now to that conversation, I can see it. In that moment, I wanted to feel like I had done my part and held the crucial conversation. I wanted to check it off my list and walk away.
So, in your conversations with your daughter, continually assess your intent. I’m not certain this is your obstacle, but you wouldn’t be the first to get caught up in holding a successful crucial conversation while having in mind the wrong idea of success. Start with heart, then check to ensure your good intentions sustain the conversation. I hope this helps.
All the best,
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