Tag Archives: Anger

Crucial Conversations QA

Aligning Different Parenting Styles

Dear Joseph,

My husband is constantly angry at our fifteen-year-old son. They are always in shouting matches and it drives me crazy. When I walk away from them, my husband says I am “burying my head in the sand.” My husband is very negative and set in his ways, and he expects our son to have the same ideas. My husband also verbalizes his disappointment in our son and tells him he is only concerned with himself. Granted, there are times this is true, but he’s a typical teenage boy. He’s sometimes mouthy, but he’s a good kid, works hard even though he may complain, and is never in trouble anywhere but at home.

I want to support my husband, but I feel he is often wrong, that he goes too far, and that some of his expectations are unreasonable. When I try to talk about it, he says that I am taking our son’s side and that the only way he can keep the peace is to just shut his mouth and not say anything. He’s not very open to conversation. Help!

End of My Rope

Dear End,

Aren’t marriages wonderful? And I mean that! Sustained, intimate relationships are usually both the greatest opportunity for personal growth and the greatest challenge of our lives. And they are the former because they are the latter.

You are exactly the gift your husband needs, and he may just be the perfect gift for you. Children need both affirmation and influence. It sounds like you’re world-class at affirmation and he has a bias for influence. Unfortunately, many relationships break down because we keep trying to make the other person be good at what we value without properly recognizing our need for what they bring to the party. Now, I’m not suggesting your husband’s approach to influence is the best. But it sounds as though what’s important to him is trying to help bring out the best in your son. And your approach to affirming him may, at times, come at the expense of helping him aspire to higher standards. But that should not take away from the fact that you see great worth and beauty in him. That’s wonderful!

So the question is how do you turn conflicting values into complementary ones? How can you and your husband create a relationship where your son gets the best you both have to offer—and where you both learn to offer it in a healthier way?

Here are some suggestions:

1. Start with safety. Help your husband know that you value what he is trying to do for your son. Express genuine appreciation for his desire to influence your son to strive. Point out specific ways you can see that your son has benefited from having him as a father. Then scrupulously avoid using the word, “but.” Don’t do it! Get it out of your brain.

After affirming your value for having a positive influence on your son, don’t go on to say, “But…you often do it about things that aren’t that important.” There are no “buts” when you’re affirming people and creating Mutual Purpose. There are only “ands.” The fact that you appreciate him wanting to challenge your son is not offset in any way by your desire to also affirm him. The two are complementary, not competing, values. So don’t make it seem like they are in conflict by using the b-word.

2. Motivate with natural consequences. If your husband is reluctant to engage in this conversation with you, think of things that are important to your husband that will help him want to engage. Then share these as you invite him into this complex discussion. Think, for example, about pain, concerns, worries, or problems he may have with you or with your son that are connected to the changes you’d like to discuss.

For example, you might say, “John, I’ve been thinking a lot about how we can better work together with our son. I know you and I haven’t always seen eye-to-eye. I know you are also frustrated that he has drifted away from you. I also know you don’t like how I criticize you at times about how you handle things. I don’t have a lot of answers, but I want to find a way to help you have the relationship you want and to partner in a way that works for you as we solve problems with him. Could we set aside some time to discuss this?”

3. Work on you first. Realize that while you will have useful feedback for your husband, he will likely see weaknesses in you that you must be willing to hear. Be open and humble. If you get defensive in the conversation, avoid reacting in the moment. Say, “I’m sure there is merit in what you’re saying. I’m feeling defensive right now so I’m going to need time to think about it. Can I do that and then get back with you later to talk about what I will do with these suggestions?”

If you are to work together better, it is going to require both of you to change. You will need to be more willing to be part of raising tough issues with your son and holding him accountable. Your husband will need to be willing to learn to do it in a healthier way—and focus on big things while letting go of little things. If you both work on yourselves, you’ll be a potent parenting team for your son.

4. Organize for the long run. Have realistic expectations. If both you and your husband have habits that have been nurtured over a lifetime, they aren’t going to change after one conversation. I suggest you frame this conversation as a starting point, then agree on ways you can help each other stick with commitments you make about how to work together more productively. Be patient with one another as you try new approaches. Expect relapses. I suggest you read our book, Change Anything, as a couple, for ideas on how to create a plan that will help you both make steady progress in changing these habits.

I applaud your commitment to your son and wish you the best as you find ways to complement one another, grow together, and give your son the gifts both of you want so much to offer.



Crucial Conversations QA

Recovering From an Outburst

Dear Crucial Skills,

I recently had an argument with someone at work because I misunderstood what she was saying to me and I said some things in return that I regret. I took your course but the skills went away from me when my emotions kicked in. Now, even though we have met with the clinical coordinator and everything seems to be ironed out, she is very cool toward me. I have apologized and even sent her a card, but I feel I truly blew it and now I’m unsure we’ll ever get back to where we were. Do you have any suggestions about what I can do to help bridge the gap?

Still Embarrassed

Dear Still Embarrassed,

We all make mistakes in our communication with others. The wise among us recognize the error and apologize to the offended person. You, having said things you regret, have taken these steps. You even went the extra mile and sent a card to apologize. Well done.

These actions are all within our control. What are not in our control are the other person’s feelings and response. Others get to decide how they’ll respond to your efforts to set things right. Sometimes they’ll forgive you and move on. Sometimes they decide to hold a grudge. Sometimes they feel hurt and may discount your apology as insincere, or they take it as sincere but steel themselves against you, wondering when it will happen again.

I wonder if the latter is the case with your coworker. Maybe she sees your efforts to be kind and respectful, but is looking, waiting, and wondering when you will lash out again.

In cases like this, consider a metaphor. Your efforts to be respectful and treat your coworker well are like pebbles. Water is like distrust or unease. You drop pebbles into the water hoping they will pile up, build mass, and rise above the water so that your respect and good intentions become the focus and substance of your relationship instead of the distrust. However, your pebbles seem to sink out of sight, making no appreciable difference. The key to changing this situation is to create a new context for your relationship, a way to capture the pebbles and make them count.

Let me share an illustration. As I finished a Crucial Conversations workshop, a middle-aged man approached me. He thanked me for the workshop and said he was the single parent of three teenagers. He had tried to apply the things I had advocated with his children, by consciously and consistently attempting to build trust and respect with them over the last year—but, it wasn’t working. They still distrusted him. He said they were “gun-shy” of him.

I asked him if something specific had happened a year ago. He became emotional and explained that he had come home drunk and “slapped his kids around.” He said that when he woke the next morning and realized what he had done, he was mortified and wanted to die. He vowed to stop drinking and has not touched alcohol since. Over the last year, he has been on his best behavior with his children, not slipping once, but they are still emotionally distant.

I asked him what had happened between him and his children the morning after the hurtful incident. He explained that he sat down with his children and told them how sorry he was for hurting them and asked for their forgiveness. Nothing else was said and every kindness he has offered since, although appreciated, was no more than a pebble sinking in the pond.

For this father, I believe his heart is right and his children are aware of his kindnesses toward them, but they seem to be on guard and wary. Rather than seeing his awful behavior as a once-in-a-life-time mistake, they may fear they got a glimpse into their Father’s real feelings and that he may erupt again at any time.

Picture how the situation would have been different if the morning after the incident, the father had gathered his children and given a heart-felt apology, asked for their forgiveness, then said, “I want you to know as of this moment, I will never drink alcohol again. Never. And I will never raise my hand against you. I will never strike you or hit you. I love you and you can count on my promise.”

Whether or not the children believed him at that moment, he would have created a context for their relationship, a clear set of expectations they could use to hold him accountable. From that moment forward, every sober day would be evidence that Dad was keeping his word. The context Dad created was like a jar of water. Every time Dad kept his word it was like putting a pebble in the jar. Instead of sinking away, it’s captured in the jar and displaces some of the water. Over time, the jar fills with respect and good intentions and empties of distrust and unease.

Even now, it’s not too late for this Father to create a new context for his relationships. This is done by setting clear expectations going forward, and informing his kids of what they can expect from him. Dad could meet with his children, reference what happened a year ago, detail the things he has done to make sure it never happened again—including his having given up alcohol. He could then create clear expectations going forward. “I will never drink again. I will never hit you. If I’m angry, I’ll do what I did during this past year: I’ll talk it through with you. I love you and will keep my promise to you.” If he sets these expectations, even though it’s a year late, the children will not only start putting pebbles in the jar, they may even retrieve some from their memories, and the jar will be filled quickly and their trust restored.

Now, your offense was nowhere near the severity of the Dad in this story; however, the principle still applies. I would encourage you to build a context for your relationship with your coworker. Sit down with her and begin by stating the facts: “Two weeks ago, I yelled at you and called you a ‘yellow-bellied sap-sucker'” (or whatever you really said). “I also apologized to you and sent you a card asking for your forgiveness.”

Having stated the facts, express what you really want for the relationship: “I hope we can have a professional, respectful, warm relationship going forward.”

Next, create the accountability. “In the future, you can expect that I will work hard at being respectful and professional.” You don’t need to obtain a commitment in kind from her; you just need to keep your commitment. In this way, you’ve given her the jar, and maybe because of the way you’ve handled it, she’s already put several pebbles in.

I wish you the very best in your efforts to build good, strong, effective relationships.