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

Influencer QA

Advice for the Parents of the Marshmallow Eaters

Dear David,

I think many are familiar with the Marshmallow experiment to demonstrate the benefits of delayed rewards. Is there any corollary data that demonstrates that those challenged with delaying rewards (i.e. those who ate the marshmallow) also struggled with avoiding penalties? In other words, do those so inclined ALSO engage in little behaviors to avoid consequences? I think of my daughter who is a marshmallow eater (unlike her brother who would wait). She also would lie a little to cover up a small infraction. But the lie eventually grows to become something with much bigger consequences. The son who understands the value of waiting for rewards is also much more likely to confess a little mistake and “take his stripes” but avoids the major repercussions of a compounding issue. Does data back this up and how can we help those who would eat the marshmallow understand the value of waiting and the penalties of compounding mistakes?

Thanks,
Marshmallow Parent

Dear Marshmallow Parent,

Wow, you’ve put some great thought into this question. Yes, I think the marshmallow study may tie in to what you are observing. But that’s not where I want to start. I’d like to start with how you handle the little lies your daughter is telling.

When Children Lie: Lying is tough because it undermines trust and shows disrespect. It’s hard not to take it personally and get angry. Part of what I like about your question is that you approach the lie with concern and curiosity, rather than moral outrage. I think that’s the best approach you can take as a parent.

For children, lying is often a faulty form of problem-solving. Your daughter has gotten herself into a fix and a lie seems like the solution—albeit a very poor-quality solution. So, treat the lie as a lack of skill and help her work on her ability to problem solve.

Of course, you also have to hold her accountable. Think of a reasonable consequence related to the lie and the problem she was trying to cover up.

For example: Suppose your daughter said she was doing her term paper at a girlfriend’s house when actually she was visiting a young man.

Begin with: “I called Sarah’s house and learned you were at Tanner’s. When you lie to me about where you are and what you’re doing, it makes it harder to trust you. So, you’re grounded for the rest of this week and you can’t see Tanner this weekend.”

Then, explore why she felt she had to lie: “Help me understand why you felt you had to lie about this?” You aren’t looking for an excuse for the lie. Instead, you are trying to understand the reason for the lie.

Finally suggest a better solution: “I would prefer you say, ‘Mom, I know you want me to work on my term paper this evening, but I really want to see Tanner.’ I would listen, and we could talk about it. Of course, there is a good chance I’d say ‘No,’ and you’d be disappointed. But that’s not as bad as lying, and hurting the trust we have.”

Teach Self-Control: In Walter Mischel’s classic studies, he followed four-year-olds who were able to resist eating a marshmallow for fifteen minutes in order to get a second marshmallow. Years later, these strong-willed children scored hundreds of points higher on their college entrance exams, had stronger marriages, earned more in salary, and got promoted more often. He showed that the ability to delay immediate gratification in service of longer-term goals is an important skill.

What people often forget is that Walter, together with Albert Bandura, also showed that self-control is a skill that children must learn, not a capacity they inherit. I remember watching my next-door neighbor teach this skill to his four-year-old. We were at a pool that had a waterslide. The rule for the slide was to wait at the base of the ladder until the child in front of you had landed in the water and reached the side of the pool. Little Ryan had trouble remembering this rule. His father and I were in the water having a conversation, but every few seconds, he’d have to remind Ryan, “Wait, wait, watch the girl in front of you. Okay, now you can go!” Ryan must have gone down the slide fifty times, and, by the end, knew how to hold himself back without reminders.

Of course, Joe, my neighbor doesn’t just teach self-control at the pool. It is a part of his positive parenting every day. He seeks out these teaching moments when he can help his children develop character skills.

Teach Influence: As I suggested earlier, lying is often a child’s last-ditch effort to get their way, when they feel they have no ability to influence their parent. Helping a child mature is all about gradually, sensibly, and safely giving over control. Children who believe they can get their parents to change their minds are more likely to try dialogue and less likely to lie.

But this loosening of reins is easier to advocate than it is to practice. One of my sisters-in-law uses a parenting skill I admire. Suppose her fourth-grade daughter comes in and asks, “Can I go to Mary’s birthday party on Saturday?” Her mom won’t give her an answer right away. Instead, she’ll say, “Convince me,” and then help her daughter make the case. She’s teaching her children how to influence her and allowing them to succeed when it makes sense. As her children have grown into their teenage years and beyond, they’ve maintained this kind of open and honest dialogue with their mother—in part, I think, because they are confident they can influence her.

Do as I Say, not as I Do: Whenever I answer a question about parenting, I feel I need to add that I’m not a parent. My wife and I have 24 nieces and nephews, so we’ve gotten to witness some wonderful parenting, but I don’t practice what I preach. For example, over the years, we’ve had nephews and nieces join us for dozens of “Camp Davids”—hiking Bryce Canyon or the Olympic National Park, unicycling in Moab, and surf lessons in Southern Cal. But these fun adventures don’t really involve much parenting. In fact, Camp David only has one rule: “You can pick your friends, and you can pick your nose, but you can’t pick your friend’s nose.” So, my advice comes from skilled friends and relatives, not from hard-won experience.

Thanks again for your probing question. I look forward to hearing other perspectives on how to handle your situation.

Best,
David

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

Kerrying On

The Wide World of Noonan Grocery

The other day, as I drove my fourteen-year-old grandson, Nate, to a local theater-in-the-round to watch a live performance of To Kill a Mockingbird, he stopped texting a friend for just long enough to learn that not only had I seen the play before, but I had also read the book and watched the movie.

“Why not just watch the movie?” Nate asked.

“Each format has certain advantages,” I explained.

“I’m not sure what that means,” Nate responded.

“Well, for instance, you just chose to text a friend rather than talk with me—even though I’m sitting right next to you.”

“But I had to take care of something before it got worse,” Nate explained.

“I’m not saying that you made the wrong communication choice, just that you made a choice and it came with advantages and disadvantages.”

“Is this due to the invention of the smart phone?” Nate asked.

“Partly,” I explained, “but having to choose between communication tools and venues has been a part of daily life for centuries. I learned this for the first time over fifty years ago when I was just about your age.”

“How’s that?” Nate asked.

And so, I spent the remainder of our car ride recounting to Nate about the time when I learned who my grandfather really was.

It all started at five o’clock on a Saturday afternoon in 1962 when I sat (as I had done more than 200 times before) in the room behind my grandfather’s grocery store and watched TV. Grandpa Noonan had just returned from shopping at the wholesale house and playing poker with his cronies. I had just completed an eight-hour shift where I waited on customers at Grandpa’s store while he was away.

Normally, as my Saturday job came to an end and I waited a half hour for the city bus to roll up, I watched the Wide World of Sports. I loved that program as much as anything on television. While Grandpa puttered around the store, I gave my undivided attention to Jim McKay as he hosted every sport imaginablefrom jai alai to wrist wrestling. Grandpa and I shared the same space, but we said little to each other—after all, a wrist wrestling competition was underway.

But not on this Saturday. As I turned to see what Wide World was airing, a news alert announced a shooting in Seattle. I asked Grandpa if he’d ever witnessed a similar crime. Born in 1880, my mother’s father was a contemporary of some of the Wild West characters I had seen in the movies; maybe he had been privy to a gunfight.

“As a matter of fact,” Grandpa answered, “I once saw a man gunned down in cold blood. I was riding in a boxcar as I made my way across the country to a job I had arranged for in Raymond, Washington. On this particular trip, I was traveling with Walter, an acquaintance I made when he boarded the train somewhere around Kansas City. A dodgy-looking character wearing jackboots joined us a couple days later, and that evening, a sad fellow clothed in rags climbed into the car. “Around midnight,” Gramps continued, “as I settled into a deep sleep, a loud shot rang through the boxcar. Walter and I awoke to find the man in jackboots standing over the dead body of the man in rags. He had shot the poor fellow in the chest and was beginning to rifle through his meager belongings. Fearing for our own lives, Walter and I tackled the shooter, wrestled away his gun, and constrained him until the train came to a stop early the next morning. Eventually, we waved down a railroad employee, and together we hauled the criminal to the local authorities while someone cared for the victim’s body.

“Now here’s where it gets interesting,” Grandpa continued (as if wrestling with a murderer had been boring). “We had been eye witnesses to a murder and the local law enforcement officials needed us to stick around for the trial. The crime happened in the middle of nowhere, and the whistle-stop where the train paused to take on cargo had no place to board us, so the sheriff put us up in the only free room in town—a jail cell. The cell worked out okay because we only used it for sleeping. The rest of the time, we shot pool and played cards at the nearby bar where we were served delicious meals cooked by the sheriff’s wife.”

Being eyewitnesses to a murder had turned gramps and Walter into persons of interest in a town where the arrival of the mail was a cause célèbre. As the trial unfolded, people from all around the county came to talk with the exotic out-of-towners.

Sometime, a few minutes into my Grandpa’s tragic tale, I turned off the television and listened intently as he vividly described a trial where, among other things, the accused (still in jackboots) tried to leap over a table and choke Grandpa to death for “squealing!”

That was the last time I turned on Jim McKay and his sports anthology. From that day on, while I waited for my Saturday-afternoon bus, I talked to Grandpa about the jobs he held before he met grandma and settled down. It turns out; he had worked as a professional gambler, a trapper, a butcher, and a dozen or so other occupations. This made Grandpa a veritable library of stories. As I look back, I cherish those Saturday-afternoon conversations and I don’t regret for a second having given up ABC’s premier sports program as the price of admission.

“Wow!” my grandson Nate responded as we pulled up to the theater and I brought Grandpa’s story to a close. “So you’re saying that talking to someone in person is better than watching a TV show or texting a message?”

“Actually, I’m not.” I responded.

Having recently been promoted from early baby boomer to old coot, I’m reluctant to say that old forms of communicating are inherently better than new ones.

“So what are you recommending?” Nate asked, a bit puzzled. “I’m saying that there is no single communication tool that’s perfectly suited for every form of interaction. We have to weigh the pros and cons of each tool and make good choices.”

And my response was not just lip service in order to stay in the good graces of my tech-loving grandson. Each year, the latest and greatest device will be introduced, and it, like all its predecessors in the form of devices, methods, and channels, will come with costs and benefits. So, spend time experimenting with a variety of tools and venues—both old and new. Be critical of the costs and welcoming of the benefits. Find ways to use these tools for good and see them as tools to make important personal and interpersonal connections.

And, should you, by chance, choose to talk face-to-face to an aging raconteur, you may discover (as I once did) that a TV broadcast of the Wide World of Sports isn’t always more interesting than a story told in the backroom of the Wide World of Noonan’s Grocery.

“But a TV broadcast could be more interesting than someone telling a story,” Nate added to my soap box.

“Not if Grandpa Noonan is doing the telling,” I responded.

“Or maybe you, Grandpa,” Nate added.

“Or maybe me.”