Category Archives: Crucial Conversations

Crucial Conversations QA

Crucial Conversations in a Crowd and Other Less Than Ideal Circumstances

Dear Emily,

I have enjoyed reading your guidance. Your advice and books tend to assume an ideal environment for communication: face-to-face, alone, and with no distractions. Those conditions are ideal, but rare. Most interactions are constrained: in an open-plan office, with family members, on a car or train, with background noise, or amidst distractions, lack of sleep, and preexisting stress. The communication channel may limit tone of voice and facial expression: email / text / IM / phone / handheld radio / voice mail / Slack / Skype. Often, the presence of others may change the way people act.

In these conditions, a conversation is more likely to turn crucial. That has happened to me recently. It may be hard to even schedule a crucial conversation. Please describe how to plan, arrange, and conduct a constrained crucial conversation.

Best,
Living in the Real World

Dear Real World,

What a great way to describe this—a constrained crucial conversation! Constrained by all the realities of life. Here is what I love about your question: you are putting the power of Crucial Conversations to the test. If crucial conversations skills only work under ideal circumstances, they aren’t really all that valuable. If, on the other hand, crucial conversations skills can stand up to the test of real life, then they are of immense value.

Consider a spectrum of conditions in which you face a crucial conversation. On one end of the spectrum, you have the ideal conditions; on the other, you have the suboptimal conditions you describe above. When faced with those suboptimal conditions, it can be easy to use the situation as a rationalization for our silence: “I can’t have a crucial conversation with this person because it won’t be private, quiet, in-person,” . . . fill in the blank. Or, we attempt the conversation, it doesn’t go well, and then we use those suboptimal conditions to justify our poor results: “Of course it didn’t go well! It was so noisy, distracting, stressful,” etc. Rather than waiting for the ideal conditions to appear or using less than ideal conditions as an excuse, I would suggest you ask yourself, “How can I move along the spectrum, even a step or two, toward improved conditions?”

Ideal conditions are those that make it easier to engage in the core principles of crucial conversations: creating safety, mastering our stories, and encouraging others to share their meaning. They allow us to be present and focused, attuned to the responses of ourselves and others in the conversation. Certainly, those things are easier to do under some conditions than others, but if you focus on the goal of creating safety and being present, you can creatively solve most conditional challenges.

Here are four quick tips you can consider for some common challenging conditions:

1. Capitalize on the privacy of crowds. We often assume you need to be in a private place in order to successfully hold a crucial conversation. Privacy certainly helps, but why? Because it helps the other person feel safe. Choosing a private place demonstrates to the other person your good intent and to allow them to express themselves without fear of judgment. That being said, I am often amazed at the intimacy, intensity, and candor of the conversations that are held in a training room. When I ask training participants to turn to a partner and share a difficult message, it can get very real. But because everyone is doing it at once, we are all paying attention to the conversations we are having, not the conversations we are overhearing. Likewise, a crowded coffee shop can be a great place to hold a crucial conversation; we are safe amidst people who are more interested in their own conversations than in yours.

2. Walk and talk. One of the best ways to hold a crucial conversation when in an open office environment is to take a walk. I love the walking crucial conversation for several reasons. Walking side-by-side takes some pressure off the other person from having to make eye contact in what might be an uncomfortable situation. Walking also introduces natural pauses in the conversation. For example: passing through doors, moving to the side to allow someone else to pass, taking a moment to decide which way to turn next, etc. Those pauses allow both you and the other person to gather your thoughts and refocus on your intent. Walking, even in a crowded area, also ensures that no single person will overhear your entire conversation, though someone may catch a word or two.

3. Call out the less than ideal conditions and why they matter. Simply acknowledging the less than ideal conditions can help to neutralize them. For example, you might begin a conversation like this:

“I would like to talk about something important. I know there are a lot of distractions right now and that is really less than ideal. Additionally, we only have about fifteen minutes and that will put time pressure on this conversation. At the same time, it doesn’t seem fair to wait because I fear we won’t ever have the perfect time and place for this conversation. Please know I will do everything I can to focus on this conversation because I believe that it, and you, are important. Hopefully, we can each give each other the benefit of the doubt if we get distracted or this doesn’t go perfectly.”

Making the conditions visible, acknowledging why they matter, and committing to the core crucial conversations principle of good intent can provide a buffer to poor conditions.

4. Use more and fewer words when you don’t have visuals. We all know how challenging it can be to have a crucial conversation over the phone or email. The reason? We are blind to all of the visual cues of how someone else is reacting to our message. We can’t see if the other person is upset, defensive, hurt, anxious, or engaged. Without that visual feedback, we often stumble blindly on and can get caught off-guard when a conversation blows up or shuts down. When deprived of visual cues, compensate with words and silence to frequently check to see how they are receiving your message. For example: “I wish we were face-to-face so I could see how this message is impacting you. Since we aren’t, can you share with me how you are feeling about what I have said?” A statement like this is the “more” words part. Pair these statements with “fewer” words i.e., silence. Learn to be okay with the pause that allows someone to consider and respond.

These are just a few ideas for the myriad situations in which we find ourselves communicating with others. What other tips have you found for holding constrained crucial conversations in your life? There are more than 350,000 very wise readers of this newsletter. I invite you to share your experiences and tips with us by adding a comment below.

Looking forward to hearing from you!

Emily

One note: Some crucial conversations demand complete privacy. For example, a conversation in a hospital about a patient should not be held in a place where someone else might overhear confidential and legally protected information. In cases like these, you must delay the conversation until an appropriate location can be secured.

Crucial Conversations QA

Help! I’m Stuck on an Airplane and Need Some Skills

Dear Joseph,

Recently, I was on an overnight flight, trying to sleep. The person in the next seat was using headphones and laughing loudly every two minutes or so. I told her, politely: “Excuse me, you probably do not realize it, but you are laughing quite loudly, and it is preventing me from going to sleep.” In response, she muttered an offensive epithet and turned away from me. I decided not to engage further and closed my eyes. I didn’t get any sleep as she continued to make noise. Once the lights were back on and we started having breakfast, she started talking to me angrily saying that I should find a different seat or use earplugs if I am disturbed by noise. I had no desire to be engaged in an argument but did not know how to respond to get her to stop. What could I have done differently?

Signed,
Anger Management

Dear Anger Management,

A sign of your emotional maturity is your capacity to sit with others’ drama without absorbing it.

Your experience bears a striking resemblance to one I had three months ago. A perky woman next to me began peppering me with questions the instant she sat down. “What’s your name? What do you do? Why are you going to LA?” and on, and on. I introduced myself, answered a couple of perfunctory questions, then said, “I’ve got some work I want to get done. May I talk with you more when I finish in a couple of hours?” She huffed and turned away.

That was a crucial moment. In moments like that, I have three emotional choices: ignore, absorb, or acknowledge.

Ignore. I can reject the clear evidence of the other person’s upset—often in a defensive way. I can actively neglect him or her in an attempt to punish. Or, I can do so to ensure my own safety. In either case, this willful ignorance is false. I actively resist the other person’s emotions while pretending I am not.

Absorb. I can take responsibility for how the other person is feeling by apologizing, or rescuing him or her. I could turn to this lady next to me and say, “I am sorry, what’s on your mind?” or, “Please don’t be mad, I’m just very busy—I have to get these things done or I’ll be in big trouble.”

Acknowledge. Acknowledgement means I care that she is upset but also recognize that it is her choice to be upset. After acknowledging that she is angry, I first examine my own role to discern whether I have fallen short of my own moral duty. If I have, I own it. I don’t own her emotions, but I own the actions that invited her to feel that way. For example, if I had been curt with her I might say, “I don’t think I said that in a very respectful way. I am sorry. I would enjoy talking with you once I have handled some things on my mind. I hope you understand.” Next, I acknowledge that she is feeling that way by validating her. “It appears you’re upset that I won’t talk with you now. I’m sorry you feel that way.” Do NOT apologize for your choice, simply express your empathy with her upset.

In my own case, the woman began to order drink after drink. The more she took in, the angrier she became. Every few minutes, she would turn to me and say, “Are you ready to talk now, Mr. Big Shot?” With a couple of more drinks in her she began to swear at me and call me names.

It is hard to stay in acknowledge rather than absorb when a relentless string of profanities is coming at you. But it is possible. You slip from one to the other when you begin to feel either that: a) the other person’s behavior means something about you—i.e. when people are unhappy with you or don’t like you that your own worth is threatened; or b) you are responsible for the other person’s feelings—i.e. your safety or worth require you to keep others happy.

Moments like the one you had on the plane—disruptive though they may be—are a great chance to develop the internal muscle to stay in acknowledge and avoid slipping into absorb. When you are able to sleep in spite of someone else’s drama, you’ll know you’ve reached momentary competence. My ability to sleep is usually affected more by the emotional noise inside me than the physical noise outside me. If I can quiet the first, I have at least a hope of rest. Continued practice can propel you to sustained competence. Truthfully, I’m working hard to get there myself.

Once I finished my work, I turned to the woman next to me and said, “I would like to talk now if you are still interested.” It turned out, she was on her way to the Betty Ford Clinic for her alcoholism. I doubt my conversation with her changed her trajectory much, but I was happy that I was able to connect with her for a few minutes.

Next time you’ve got a party going on in the next seat, take advantage of the opportunity to do some emotional calisthenics.

Warmly,
Joseph

Crucial Conversations QA

The Return of the Rational—Separating Facts vs. Stories

Dear Joseph,

Since the election, I’ve been noodling on one of the core competencies of Crucial Conversations: Separating facts from stories. We live in strange times where many people can no longer distinguish what is true vs. what is something they believe is true—seeing them as equivalents. How do you have a reasonable conversation with others when you can’t even agree on the definition of a fact?

Signed,
Alternative Facts

Dear Alternative Facts,

I agree with your premise even more than you do. You say, “ . . . many people can no longer distinguish what is true vs. what they believe . . . ” Substitute “all of us” for “many people” and I’m with you.

You’re struggling to have “reasonable conversations” and I’d suggest part of the reason might be that you have an illusion of your own invulnerability to the same massive distortion.

We smugly tell ourselves that the reason we have conflict with others is that they are subject to silly self-serving biases. We, by contrast, see the world as it is. Or, at least, far better than “they” do. We are more cosmopolitan, educated, and sophisticated. They are a bunch of mindless pawns to whatever pabulum is served up to them.

The problem isn’t that we are wrong about them. The problem is that we are wrong about us. When your feelings of rightness turn into feelings of righteousness you’ve almost always crossed the line into self-deception.

What makes this all worse, today, most of us inhabit internet filter bubbles. What we like to think is a random sample of correct-thinking humanity reinforces our deluded sense of our own objectivity dozens of times a day with invisibly, but carefully, curated content.

If you want to have reasonable conversations with those who have come to widely divergent views from yours, here are some tools:

1. Drop the adjectives. When describing others’ views—even when they are out of earshot—stop using inflated and inflammatory language. For example, making the statement, “A trade war would be a mutual suicide pact! Hasn’t he taken a basic econ class?” has a predictable influence not just on the other person, but on you. The reason for reducing your use of adjectives is not to understate your views, it is to cease escalating your own feelings of separation. You can’t communicate with someone you don’t respect. The word “communication” comes from the same root as “community” and “comity.” The word literally means “to make common.” The more you amplify your adjectives, the more you erode even the possibility of coming to common views with others. I am not suggesting you wallpaper over substantive differences you may have with other people. I am only suggesting that you be circumspect about maintaining integrity with your own facts by lacing them less often with inflammatory “stories.” For example, “My understanding of economic history is that it generally leads to mutually harmful trade wars.”

2. STATE your facts. If you want others to be more fact-based, be sure—even when among “friendlies”—to hold yourself to the same standard. It feels exhilarating sometimes to sing the chorus of our own conclusions with those who harmonize with us—but this makes for mental laziness that atrophies our patience with those who sing a different tune. Develop the discipline, when sharing your opinion in any context, of starting with the facts from which you claim to derive your conclusions. For example, if you believe tariffs are bad, why do you believe that? If you’re like me, you’ll be humbled to realize you’ve simply been repeating what those you hang out with or read from have been saying, and you may struggle to really remember the factual basis for your conclusions any more than those you’re tempted to deride.

3. Patiently walk others back down their “paths.” In Crucial Conversations we describe the “Path to Action”

The model suggests that how people act is the result of a path that begins with an experience. Our senses gather data through hearing, seeing, etc. Then we tell a story about what we experience. The story creates our feelings. And our feelings influence our actions. The problem is, our brains are designed for efficiency. So we tend not to store all the source data that shapes our stories and feelings. We tend to remember what we think or feel about things. But we don’t remember all the facts and observations that generated those stories or feelings. Thus, we are terrible at revising our views but great at arguing for their rightness. Knowing this, we can be more patient both with ourselves and others. We’re all deluded. But we can help each other out.

When someone tells you what they “think” or “feel,” gently and respectfully help him or her recover the connections to the “why.” Ask about what he or she has seen, done, read, or learned that informed these stories and feelings. Don’t provoke defensiveness by pointing out how lame and inadequate his or her evidence is. All you’ll do is rupture the safety within which he or she can rationally reconsider with a larger pool of meaning.

I hope these ideas are useful to you. I like the saying, “Oh Lord, please help me forgive those who sin differently than I.” Yet, I think in the end, we all sin in pretty similar ways.

Best wishes,
Joseph

Crucial Conversations QA

What to Say When People Break Boundaries

Dear Steve,

I recently built and moved into my dream home. My partner’s daughter has four very unruly children who do not respect my boundaries. How do I have the crucial conversation I need to have, so both my partner and his daughter understand that the children need to be taught to respect others and demonstrate good manners in the homes of other people?

Signed,
Dream Weaver

Dear Dream Weaver,

When I left home to live on my own, I never realized that choosing to share living space with others would bring me face-to-face with so many different crucial conversations. And it didn’t matter if we had known each other previously or not. The shared space seemed to be the biggest factor in whether issues became crucial.

In your situation, I’d recommend you focus on two crucial conversations meta-skills: notice and act.

Notice
It sounds like you are at the nexus of several different conversations and therein lies the challenge. Since the conversations are related, there’s a huge temptation to approach them as if they were the same conversation when they are, in reality, distinct and different. From my reading of your situation, I count at least two separate issues that need attention and focus. It sounds like you have concerns that need to be discussed with the kids who are violating boundaries. And another, separate conversation with your partner about response—or in this case, lack of response—to the kids’ behavior.

Since both are related to the undesirable behavior, people are tempted to bring everybody into one room and hash it out, or only talk to your partner about the kids’ behavior. I’d recommend that you talk to your partner first so you can reaffirm, establish, or re-negotiate how you’ll work together on issues like these.

Much of what partners find really troublesome is tied to not feeling supported by or aligned with each other when trying to address difficult issues. So, in essence, you now have two problems you’re trying to solve simultaneously: You’re unhappy about the kids’ behavior and also starting to feel an increasing frustration that your partner isn’t supporting you like you’d expect him or her to. You’ll find that as you’re able to address these two issues separately, they will be much easier to work through than if you bundle them.

So, handle them one at a time and I’d recommend that you work on the one with your partner first. Once you’ve sorted things out with your partner, you can then jointly (being the key word here) address the kids’ behavior.

Act
In this case, the skills for holding the conversation are the same for both topics you want to discuss. It isn’t always the case that you’d need the same skills, but this time it happens to be. The two sets of skills I’d focus on here would be Make It Safe and STATE my Path.

• Make It Safe. This is where you take the time to ensure that your loved ones know and understand that they are indeed loved ones. It’s really easy in this type of discussion to lose sight of this step. When this happens, people start telling themselves stories about you, why you’re bringing the issue up and even what it means. You can head off a lot of these problems by Making It Safe. In practice, this means that you actively reinforce your purpose for bringing up the issue throughout the conversation (i.e., if talking with the kids, then “catching a problem before it gets out of hand,” or, if talking with your partner, then “making sure we work together to address concerns,”). When you notice your partner or the kids becoming defensive, it’s great to pause and make sure they know that while you don’t love the behavior being exhibited, you do love them. Contrasting is a great skill to use here to help people see what you do and don’t want. In essence, you don’t want your relationship with them to go away, just the distracting behavior.

• STATE My Path. Now onto the “open your mouth and let the words do the work” part. While the skill set here provides a nice structure to this, it does not mean that it will be easy—just possible. So, in order to get your words working for you, approach these conversations with STATE: Share your facts, Tell your story, Ask for others’ paths, Talk tentatively, and Encourage testing.

Usually, people use STATE to tell other people what they’re noticing about them. I’d encourage you to use it to tell your loved ones about you. People often use STATE as if they are building a lawsuit against the other person: “These are the facts, and therefore you must accept conclusion Y!” Instead, you want your loved ones to understand how you’ve come to the conclusions you’ve come to.

Let me suggest a framework script to illustrate this point. “I’d like to talk with you about some things that I’ve noticed over the last little while. I have some observations that I’d like to share with you and some of the conclusions I’m starting to draw, and then I’d be really interested in hearing your perspective.” At this point, pause to check for safety, and when you feel you can, proceed with a statement like, “I’ve noticed that (insert a couple of observations here). And you may not be fully aware of this, but when I see these things it represents a violation of (insert your tentative conclusions here). So I wanted to talk with you to get your take on it.” At this point, you’ll want to reassess safety to ensure the conversation continues in a healthy and productive tone.

Like I said, this doesn’t take the angst out of the conversation, but hopefully provides some guidance for how to more successfully navigate this tough conversation.

Best of luck,
Steve

Crucial Conversations QA

Are Top Leaders Exempt from Using Crucial Conversations Skills?

Dear Joseph,

Your book, Crucial Conversations, suggests that we are more effective if we express ourselves “tentatively” and encourage others to challenge our views. But many leaders (Jack Welch, Donald Trump, etc.) are the opposite—forceful and even dogmatic. And yet, they are very successful. I can’t remember either of these men speaking “tentatively” or encouraging others to share their divergent views. So do crucial conversation skills only work in some cases? Why do some reach the top in spite of doing the opposite of what you teach?

Signed,
Double Standard

Dear Double Standard,

I am not going to weigh in on specific personalities (Welch, Trump, or other public figures) . . . but it’s funny you should ask this question.

Just prior to the election, we did an interesting experiment that illustrates the answer I’ll offer to your important question.

We asked more than 3,600 subjects—who told us they held strong political opinions—to watch a brief video clip of someone who either agreed or disagreed vehemently with their view. Some watched a clip of someone sharing their view in an aggressive and dogmatic way. Others saw a clip of someone sharing their view strongly—but in a way that showed respect for those who hold alternate opinions. Then, we asked the subject to rate the likeability, intelligence, and persuasiveness of the person they just observed.

The results stunned us.

Those who watched a dogmatic person who agreed with them rated them as far less intelligent, likeable, and persuasive than someone who disagreed with them—but disagreed reasonably. And the differences were not subtle—those who presented their views with passionate respect were:

  • Five times more likely to be seen as diplomatic
  • Four times more likely to be seen as likeable
  • Three times more likely to be seen as knowledgeable
  • 140% more persuasive
  • 140% more likely to stay in dialogue with others
  • 180% more likely to maintain relationships with others

So how do you explain this? If a respectful approach to communication makes this profound a difference in how people perceive you, how could someone rise to power by doing the opposite?

Part of the answer, I believe, lies in how we introduced the video to our subjects. We did not say, “Watch this person on television.” Instead, we said, “Imagine this is your coworker who is trying to engage you in conversation . . . ”

Can you see the difference? And why it would make such a difference? The difference is performance vs. relationship.

National politics is more about performance than relationship. Performance is monologue not dialogue. It must be brief, simple, and memorable. Relationships are none of these. They require dialogue. Conversations are often lengthy, nuanced, and messy. The way we framed our video experiment placed it in the context of an office relationship.

It turns out that the rules that govern memorability are different than those that generate a sense of connection and trust. Conflict and repetition promote memory. So, in political performance, we need a foil or antagonist to create a sense of conflict. We dramatically juxtapose our view with that of the antagonist. And we repeat the same simple dictum ad nauseum. In this context, exaggeration increases effect.

But imagine someone trying that in conversation! It wouldn’t work. You’d walk away. They would rupture relationships. In fact, we saw the breakdown of relationships during this last political season as people attempted the same grandstanding gestures they saw played out on the nightly news in social media or in office conversation. Bad idea.

Interestingly, even politicians and larger-than-life business leaders must be bilingual in this respect—or they will pay a price. There’s a difference between winning a campaign and building an organization—or relationship. We’ve studied the latter for three decades and can say unequivocally that if you attempt to use political performance skills in the sustained relationships of your life, you’ll pay an enormous cost.

Does that mean you’ll fail completely if you violate respectful communication practices? No. Because success is not about a single variable. But it does mean that you’ll fall short of the success you could have had if you had managed this one variable better. Some succeed in spite of their weaknesses, but rarely because of them.

Interestingly, one of Jack Welch’s most coveted cultural goals was to build a culture of candor. He knew that an organization that doesn’t habitually speak truth to power is doomed to suffer for the lack of it. My guess is his public persona was different in some ways than his interpersonal approach.

I hope this distinction helps you decide which habits will create the life and results you want most.

Warmly,
Joseph

Crucial Conversations QA

How to Save a Sinking Ship

Dear David,

I am one of several department chairs at a proprietary college. Since I have been here, we have had four people rotate in and out of the dean’s position; the most recent having been marched from the building yesterday. We have had every leadership style from overbearing micromanagement to completely oblivious apathy. When considering applicants for this position, the department chairs are not given the opportunity for input, in spite of the havoc the poor leadership and constant change wreaks in our working environment. Some of the department chairs feel that we should approach the college president in a united group about having a more active role in the hiring process of the next applicant, but others are afraid to speak up, or don’t feel that we would be heard even if we did. In addition, the company is in overall disarray due to poor corporate leadership, compliance issues, and significant budget problems—which translated into a campus wide turnover rate of 45% in the last year alone. In addition to myself, I suspect most of my peers are actively looking for other jobs, but until we are able to make good on our escapes, do we continue to suffer or should we try and find a way to approach our college president who is at this point feeling insecure and frustrated himself?

Signed,
Desperate

Dear Desperate,

Yowza! It sounds as if you’re earning your doctorate in disaster at Catastrophe College. I can only imagine the stress and pain this cycle has created in your life. You have my full sympathy.

Over the years, I’ve worked with several colleges and educators facing similar challenges. I think many of our crucial conversations skills can help to frame your choices.

Start with heart.
Healthy dialogue starts with your own motives. We all have multiple motives. Three you mention are: have an active role in the hiring process, reduce the havoc and poor leadership, and make good on your escape. Start With Heart means stepping back and taking a long-term and inclusive look at your priorities. Ask, “What do I really want for myself, for the college president, and for our school?” Your answer to these questions will become the North Star you navigate towards.

Weigh the risks and rewards. Speaking up will be risky. That’s clear. But not speaking up is risky too. In fact, you’ve tried not speaking up, and it has resulted in “every leadership style from overbearing micromanagement to completely oblivious apathy.” Hmmm.

A common mistake is to focus exclusively on the short-term personal risks of speaking up, while ignoring the long-term, community-wide risks of not speaking up. Paradoxically, the times when we are least likely to speak up are also the times when speaking up will make the biggest difference. I can’t tell you whether you should risk speaking up. You will need to balance the risks for yourself.

Practice empathy. If you decide to speak up, begin by looking at the world from your college president’s perspective. Practice your empathy skills. He’s probably feeling embattled. My guess is he has many bosses who are second-guessing his decisions. His job and the college’s survival are on the line. If the college fails, he may have to find a whole new career. If I were him, the last thing I’d want would be one more group that thinks it can make demands of me.

Ask permission. Don’t approach your college president with demands. You aren’t his manager, you don’t know what his board is asking of him, and you don’t have access to the information he has. Instead, begin with a statement that demonstrates Respect and Mutual Purpose. When I’m in this situation, I often begin with Mutual Purpose, and then show Respect by asking for permission to share my ideas. For example, “I want you to know you have my full support. I know you’re working extremely hard to get our college back on track, and I’d like to help. Would it be okay if I asked a few questions and shared some ideas?”

Begin with his priorities. It’s tempting to begin by sharing all the problems the turmoil has caused for you and other faculty members. But you, the faculty, and even the students are just one of the many priorities on his long list. For example, what if his board has asked him to cut costs by laying off the salaried faculty, and replacing them with contractors and adjunct faculty? If that’s the case, then sharing the faculty’s problems won’t be relevant.

Of course, the college president may not be able to share his priorities with you, because of confidentiality concerns. But it will be hard for you to be helpful, unless he can be frank about the challenges he faces.

Make a specific request. If I understand you correctly, your specific request is to have a subset of the faculty be involved in selecting the next dean. Explain the positive consequences that will stem from this involvement. Suggest how this process will help the college and help the college president. Don’t focus on how this will help you and the faculty. Take a broader, college-wide perspective.

Have a backup plan. It sounds as if you are already looking for another job. That’s good. I wouldn’t put all my eggs in this current basket. Be prepared for the college president to say he doesn’t want or need your help, and has no plans to involve you or other faculty. If that is his response, retreat gracefully, and put your backup plan into effect. Don’t burn your bridges, but plan to move on.

Again, my heart goes out to you. The proprietary college industry is in turmoil. I’m so sorry you’ve been caught up in this maelstrom.

Best of luck,
David

Crucial Conversations QA

How to Get Along With Your Mother-in-Law

Dear Emily,

My husband and I recently moved to a new city and my in-laws decided to move near us. I often feel intimidated and inadequate around my mother-in-law. I called her one day to try and resolve a conflict concerning one of my children and I walked into a land mine. She unleashed several months of frustrations with me about my personality and how I raise my children. She questioned the success of my business and also told me my husband was in a terrible marriage. I was completely dumbfounded and responded to her in anger. My husband and father-in-law defended me and both told her she was way out of line. The two of us have not talked about what happened and my husband wants me to move on since he stood up for me. While I appreciate him standing up for me, her words are ringing in my head and I have had very little resolution. I feel even more inadequate knowing how she truly feels about me. How do I move on and be in her presence knowing she dislikes me so much?

Sincerely,
Blindsided

Dear Blindsided,

I hear the heartbreak in your question. I hear it. I believe the human spirit has an innate and deep desire for connection. For many people, our family connections are the most central. And when those connections are tenuous, hurtful, absent, or destructive, our heartbreak can be profound. So, I say, I hear you.

Your way through this relationship will be your own. I do not presuppose to be able to light that way for you. I can, as a friend, share some insights that have provided light for my path.

It is easy to presume that your story is a story of two women—you and your mother-in-law. In some ways, that is true. And, for just a time, let us step back and see what would happen to our thinking if we decided that this story, this experience, was yours alone. If we decided that this story was about you alone, and not about her, what questions might we ask? Here are some that come to mind for me:

Why does what your mother-in-law think of you matter? Why do you crave her approval? I ask that question without judgment. It is okay that her opinion matters. We are social animals. Connection to others matters. Therefore, the opinion of others matters. But what if you shifted your thinking and understood that her approval of you is hers to give, not yours to earn? Whether she gives it or not is about her, not you. How would that thinking shift your relationship with her?

Is her validation of you important enough to change yourself in order to receive it? Because changing yourself may be the only path to receiving her validation. And you may decide to change as you determine how important her validation is for you. Normally, we look at it the other way. We want other people to change. We want our mother-in-laws to recognize us for who we are and accept and love us for that. While this is a natural desire, it is also out of our control. But changing yourself, should you choose to do so, is within your control.

The question you ask (how can I be me and have her like me?) is not necessarily one of your choices. Your choice is to separate the questions: How can I be me, the me I want to be? And, what will it take in my actions for my mother-in-law to like me? If those two answers were aligned, you wouldn’t have written to us. Because they are not aligned, you need to decide which question is more important to you. If the former is more important, then go ahead and be you. If the later, then change in ways that will be pleasing to your mother-in-law. Neither choice is right or wrong—just make the choice that is right for you.

Are you holding her to a standard of perfection that is unfair? There is much more to your relationship with your mother-in-law than can be captured in a paragraph. I know that I have only the barest sketch in front of me. So, I will tread lightly. Based on what is here, I wonder . . . how much of what your mother-in-law said in that argument was a result of her own high emotions—her own frustrations and anger—rather than a permanent judgment of dislike toward you?

Because we know our own heart, it is often easy for us to see in ourselves the disconnect between what we really think and feel and what we may express in times of anger and frustration. And, we know that at times, our emotions take control, driving our actions in ways that are misaligned from our true intentions. It is much harder for us to recognize or accept that disconnect in others. After all, all we have to go on is what we have seen of them through their actions.

Do you know her heart as well as you know your own? You don’t because you can’t. It may be easy to say, “Yes, I know her heart. I have seen it through her actions and I know she dislikes me because that is what her words and actions communicate.” And that may be true. But, I would simply ask: Has there ever been a time when your words and actions (out of anger, despair, grief, or just sheer exhaustion) have been misaligned with your best self? If yes, then consider granting to others the reprieve we would give ourselves—realizing that one bad argument or even twelve negative interactions does not necessarily mean we are doomed to a state of permanent dislike.

Ten years ago, when I began training Crucial Conversations, I was surprised that the first fifty percent of the course was focused on me—on internal work I needed to do before I could open my mouth and start a conversation. In my naiveté, I often felt as a facilitator that I should “hurry through” that part of the course to get to what people had come to learn: how to talk to others. But in the last decade, I have learned that if anything, we are underselling the importance of working on ourselves first by only giving it the first fifty percent of the course.

Dig deep and know that this is your story. It is not about her. It is about you. Once you find your answers, you will be ready to begin a dialogue that has the potential to heal a relationship and has the certainty of healing you.

When you are ready to have that conversation, here are a few ideas about how to approach it:

First, apologize. Yep, that’s right. Based on the details you shared, I would consider apologizing to your mother-in-law for the things you said as you responded to her in anger. Now, the challenge with this apology is that it must be sincere and it absolutely can’t be given with the expectation of anything in return (i.e. don’t apologize as a way of hinting to her that she should apologize back to you). Your apology should be an acknowledgement, not a justification, of your behavior.

Next, express your intent in holding the conversation. What is it you really want? My hope is that your intent is to build a positive, peaceful relationship with your mother-in-law. If that is the case, say that. And mean it.

Then, check in with your mother-in-law to understand what her intent is. Does she share a similar purpose i.e., having a positive, peaceful relationship with you? If not, what type of relationship would she like to have with you?

Finally, in this first conversation back into the relationship, focus on listening, exploring, and understanding. You may even consider preparing for the conversation by generating a list of questions you can ask—judgment-free questions that focus on gaining insight into your mother-in-law. There will be time later to share your perspective, to let her know (if and when appropriate) how the conflict between you has impacted you. Instead, in this first conversation of healing, simply listen. Listening, more than any words you can say, will demonstrate your commitment to repairing your relationship.

I wish you the best of luck in this very important crucial conversation.

Emily