Dear Crucial Skills,
My husband and our daughter fight a lot but when I try to diffuse the situation they often get angry at me, and as a result I resort to silence. Their most recent fight started with a simple request from my husband for our daughter to put the dog food in the garage and ended with them yelling at each other and my daughter going to her room yelling “I hate you, I’m moving out!”
After reading Crucial Conversations I decided to listen and evaluate their conversations. I learned they both go to violence and they both have the same goal—unfortunately, their common goal is to win the argument! Their relationship is getting worse all the time and I want to help them learn to communicate but I don’t know how.
Caught in the Middle
You are in a difficult position. You are the third party in a relationship with two people who badly mishandle their crucial conversations with each other. Your choice of reactions include: going against them and setting up a three-way gunfight; joining one and ganging up on the other; refusing to participate and walking away; or trying to change the way they interact. The last option is the best choice, but it’s also the most difficult.
Family therapists and professional facilitators spend years learning and conducting real-time mediations to help other people improve communication, but even with years of experience they do so with mixed results. Getting your family to agree to have you facilitate their crucial conversations would be tough enough; actually facilitating the conversations would be even harder.
Perhaps the best way to help your family is to have individual crucial conversations with your husband and your daughter about how they conduct themselves in their crucial conversations. Your role then is not to facilitate their conversations; rather, your role is to help them improve their conversations.
The key to holding effective crucial conversations is to create mutual purpose and mutual respect. These two conditions make it safe to dialogue about tough things.
First, have a conversation with your husband. Begin by sharing the facts with him. For example, you might say, “I noticed when you spoke with Jennifer yesterday about putting the dog food in the garage, you both got very angry and it turned into a fight.”
By sharing the facts and avoiding accusations, you minimize his defensiveness. You also introduce the subject of your conversation with your husband without placing blame.
Let’s say your husband (we’ll call him Larry) gets defensive and responds with, “It wasn’t my fault that it turned into a fight, it’s Jennifer’s lousy attitude that’s the problem.”
Make it safe for Larry by sharing your good intentions and clarifying your purpose. “Larry, I’m not blaming you or suggesting it’s your fault. I just want to figure out how to solve problems in a way that improves relationships in our family.” This skill, called “sharing your good intentions,” discloses what your motives are and identifies your purposes. It also helps your husband see that this conversation is not an attack.
Perhaps Larry responds with silence. Check to see if your purpose is mutual.
“What I want is for problems to be solved—like Jennifer putting the dog food where it belongs—in a way that is respectful. I want her to feel you respect her and I also want her to treat you with respect. Is that what you want too?”
This purpose is likely one that he shares and desires also, in which case, you’ve successfully established mutual purpose.
If you sense your husband is reluctant to try a different approach, share with him the consequences you believe will result if things don’t change.
“Larry, if things don’t improve between you and Jennifer, I’m afraid there will be serious damage to your relationship that could last well into the future. She is getting to the age where she will be making some big decisions and leaving home. I’m worried that a strained relationship might push her away and make her hesitant to confide in us. That will make it difficult for us to be of help to her at this important time.”
If these consequences help him come around then you might move to getting his commitment. If he’s still resisting, you might share a consequence that shows him how this problem affects you. “When you fight with Jennifer, it really hurts me. I love you both and it scares me to see you attacking each other. I feel like our family is breaking apart and it causes me great pain.”
When he expresses a willingness to make things better, it is time to decide who does what by when. What exactly do you want him to do? Do you want him to apologize to Jennifer? Do you want them to sit down and discuss their relationship? Maybe you want him to start with baby steps. “Larry, I want your commitment that you’ll see your relationship with Jennifer as a higher priority than putting away the dog food. That doesn’t mean you let things slide, it just means you will handle things with her in a calm, respectful way. Do I have your promise?”
For someone who is reasonably good at interpersonal relationships, this dialogue may be sufficient for Larry to do things differently. If Larry is less skilled, you may need to factually and accurately describe some of the words and phrases he uses that are disrespectful. Give specific feedback on his behaviors and suggest replacement behaviors or skills that will help him improve.
After getting his agreement to do a better job, suggest a time and date to follow up and talk over how things are going.
After successfully navigating this crucial conversation with your husband, have the same conversation with your daughter.
Conversations with family members about their behavior are tough conversations to hold, but holding them and holding them well is crucial to the well-being of you and your family.
All the best,