Crucial Conversations QA

Being At Odds with Your Spouse

Dear Emily,

Much of what is taught about crucial skills seems to work if both people have similar mindsets toward certain principles in life. But when two people are at odds, how can there be any resolution? My wife and I are not retired, but as we have been discussing how to allocate our retirement money, my wife is all for spending it soon. She has no interest in delaying enjoying the money now. She’s also convinced that she will not live to be the average age (she has no real health issues that would lead me to conclude that she will have anything less than a full life). I’m of the opinion that I don’t want to wake up when I am eighty-five and find that there is nothing left and I need to work. We cannot resolve this in any rational way and the emotional means are taking its toll on our relationship. Am I correct to say that crucial skills only work for some people?

Regards,
At Loose Ends

Dear At Loose Ends,

“When two people are at odds, how can there be any resolution?” What a powerful, heartfelt question. As I read it, I thought of all the emotion, heartache, and heaviness contained in those three small words: taking its toll. I thought of the relationships that matter most to me and the dark times when I have been at odds with those I love. I felt a small measure of the pain that is often masked by frustration at these times. Thank you for your honest expression of doubt. Just how much can crucial skills really do? Just how far can they really take us? Just how much can they really heal our relationships?

My answer: as much as we will let them. Crucial skills can do as much, take us as far, and heal our relationships as much as we will let them. It’s not the skills that limit us. We limit ourselves.

Now, lest I sound naïve, I don’t want to imply that crucial skills are the panacea for all disagreement, despair, and destruction in our world. They are not. But I do know that far more often than not, it is not our lack of skill that precludes us from achieving resolution and results, it is our lack of heart. Allow me to share a brief example and then I will come back to your particular situation.

Several weeks ago, my friend, and fellow Master Trainer Justin Hale, shared with me a beautiful example of the power of crucial skills paired with an open heart. A trainer in one of his classes shared his experience with crucial skills. This man had first gone through Crucial Conversations before it was even Crucial Conversations! More than a decade ago, he had attended what was then called Path of Dialogue. There he had learned the timeless principles of starting with heart, creating safety, and sharing his meaning. He had put those skills to work in his own life. And yet, despite many successes with his crucial skills, he remained estranged from his family.

You see, this young man had been raised in a very conservative, Christian tradition and his family had not accepted him as the gay man that he is. For many years, their contact had been strained, pained, and minimal. Hearts on both sides of the relationship ached. This issue struck at the very core of who these people thought they were, what they valued most, and the principles on which they based their lives. It doesn’t get much deeper than that.

Finally the time came in which this man, this trainer of dialogue and crucial skills, knew that he wanted to heal his relationship with his family. So, with a tender, open, and I am sure aching heart, he reached out in love and skill to his brother. His efforts resulted in a conversation which literally took hours. Think about that. A conversation which took hours. A conversation which ripped at each brother’s heart. A conversation of pain and grief. This is a crucial conversation. It didn’t get resolved with a simple formula of STATEing my path and exploring yours, tossing in a contrasting statement here and there. It lasted hours and hours because two men wouldn’t give up—on the conversation or each other.

And in the end, this time, they found their way back to one another. They found a way to let brotherhood be more important than the forces keeping them apart. They found their way because they were able to talk and listen and hear.

Now, what I don’t want you to hear in this example is that you aren’t trying hard enough with your wife or that your heart isn’t good enough. That is not my message at all. My message is that extraordinary things can be accomplished with crucial skills. It is not that the use of crucial skills always accomplishes extraordinary things.

Crucial conversations are always easier when there is already a clear and easily defined Mutual Purpose. So, yes, of course it is easier to have crucial conversations with people of like mindset. But, if the skills only work when two people already agree or already share Mutual Purpose, then they would not have helped this man and his brother.

So, what does this mean for you and your wife? It means there is hope. It also means there is hard work still ahead. Here is the place I would suggest you start: you need to step out of the content and rebuild safety by establishing a Mutual Purpose. What does it mean to step out of the content? It means you must stop talking about allocating your retirement money. That’s right. The way to discuss this thorny issue of retirement money is to stop talking about it. Not forever. Just as long as it takes you to find Mutual Purpose. Think about it this way: if talking about allocation of retirement money is causing defensiveness and lack of safety, why would continuing to talk about retirement money help you rebuild safety?

So, now that you have stopped talking about retirement money, what do you do? You first commit to finding a Mutual Purpose and you do it out loud. Don’t just think it. Say it. And aim high. “I want to find a solution that doesn’t just work for both of us. I want to find a solution that strengthens us, builds us, and helps us love each other more. I want to find a way through this conversation that makes our relationship stronger than when we started.”

Once you have committed to finding Mutual Purpose, commit to understanding her purpose. That’s right. Start by listening—really listening. You’ll get your chance to share your purpose, thoughts, feelings, and fears. You will. And, I promise that if you commit to hearing her perspective first, you will build safety in new and profound ways. In fact, sometimes when Mutual Purpose is hardest to find, listening to the other person is the best Mutual Purpose to have. What does that mean? It means that in a conversation, your wife’s purpose is to be heard, and to have you listen and understand. So, if your purpose in the conversation is to hear her, to listen and to understand (not necessarily agree, but simply understand and affirm), then that is a Mutual Purpose right there. And that can often be all you need to get started.

Best of Luck,
Emily