Crucial Conversations QA

Adjusting to Your In-Laws’ Communication Style

We’re excited to announce that Steve Willis, a Senior Master Trainer as well the VP of Professional Services at VitalSmarts, will become a regular contributor to the Crucial Skills Newsletter.

Dear Steve,

I’m a newlywed and my in-laws are very involved in our lives; we see them frequently each month. Although I dated my husband for several years before marriage, I never really acclimated to his family’s style of rhetoric. Both of his parents tend to argue and debate everything. It’s difficult for me to have a conversation with them because I know it will result in some sort of argument. My husband doesn’t share this rhetoric style and separates himself by ignoring it or disengaging from conversations, while I get very agitated and stressed by it. I fear I’ll be thought of as rude if I choose to be non-responsive to conversations directed toward me as he does. What is the best way for me to handle this?

Too Passive for This Family

Dear Too Passive,

Thank you for you an excellent question. As it happens, all crucial conversations are not created equal. And it’s not always easy to tell what kind of conversation you’re facing at the outset. If we could scale them, like we do with white-water rapids, most crucial conversations come in right around a class three. They are difficult to navigate, and contain their fair share of holes and eddies that shift the course of the conversations in unpredictable ways. However, the conversation you describe is a class five—if not greater. This is a class of conversation that requires some “scouting” to understand what you’re up against. Otherwise you may find yourself stuck in a recirculating pattern. With this in mind, I’d recommend two ideas: notice and act. Sounds simple, but it’s a little more challenging than you might expect.

Let’s start with notice. One of the biggest benefits participants get from attending a Crucial Conversations Training is learning new ways to look at their existing conversations. You start to notice new elements or aspects of the interaction that you hadn’t previously. I think it’s helpful to realize that the friction here is due to a difference in your value hierarchies. It’s not that you don’t value frank, open, honest communication or that your in-laws don’t value civility and respect. The conflict arises because of where those values sit within your value hierarchies. Neither value set is right or wrong—just different. But therein lies the challenge. It would seem that healthy debate is not as high on your list as it is on theirs.

So now you can view the conversation in a new light. It helps you approach it differently too. Instead of sharing your facts, telling your story, and asking for their paths in regards to whatever happens to be the topic of the day, you begin the conversation aware of your differences in values. Notice will get you to the right starting place within the conversation, but the act part, the part that comes next, will still be somewhat tricky.

Act 1: STATE My Path. The subtitle of this section of training is “How to be persuasive, not abrasive.” While this is useful in describing the power of the STATE skills, it does not fully express their full range of use. In training, we practice the STATE skills on situations where there is a need to hold another person accountable, or check conclusions we’ve drawn about a coworker. In these situations, the person lays out his or her case in order to help the other person appreciate his or her position, all while trying to avoid coming across as someone trying a law case.

So here’s the subtle twist: we are often more persuasive when we provide others with information about us rather than address issues related to them. Meaning, you use STATE differently based on the type of conversation you’re facing. In this situation, where you are dealing with difference in values, you want to use the skills to point out how certain actions are perceived by you as well as how those perceptions impact you.

In conversation, it might sound like, “I’d like to share something with you that you might not know about me. When I see you two talking about things such as (insert one or two of the most recent topics where you’ve experienced the aggressive banter) and hear you represent your opinions with expressions like (insert an example or two) it feels to me that you’re more interested in being right than being inclusive. I realize that you may not be aware of this, so I wanted to share it with you.” Again, the point here is not to convince them of the error of their ways, but rather to help them understand what goes on in your head when you see them start in on a topic.

Act 2: Start with Heart. Some people might recommend creating Mutual Purpose in this situation, but I like to take a step back and focus on a foundational element. How you approach this will make a difference in the outcome. You will want to stay connected to what you really want: an open yet respectful series of interactions without feeling like you have to escalate or walk away completely. I would take the time to write this out and not just make it a mental exercise so that you can be very deliberate about connecting to what you really want.

Last of all, I’ve found it helpful to have this conversation at a different time than when you experience the forceful dialogue. The other person is less defensive and therefore more open to your message. Don’t try to disabuse them of their values. Provide them with information about you, using your best STATE skills, and keep connected to what you really want. Be aware that this may take time, and you may need to re-share a couple of times, but in the end I think you’ll find it easier to interact with your in-laws.

Best of Luck,