Ron McMillan is the author of three bestselling books, Influencer, Crucial Conversations, and Crucial Confrontations.
Dear Crucial Skills,
I have one brother, whom everyone loves dearly. He is the guy with the golden tongue—a natural charmer who gets out of many conversations that, to me, are crucial. He is not one to put family first—his priority is looking good and charming whoever may be around him. As a result, I become the younger sister who is left to pick up the pieces and bear the brunt of his unreliable ways. When I confront him, he makes me feel like I have overreacted and I end up feeling bad about bringing it up. How do you have crucial conversations with those who are so good at words? Please help me face this golden tongue.
Fed Up Little SisterDear Fed Up,
You describe your brother as a “natural charmer” who does not put family first and leaves you to “bear the brunt of his unreliable ways.” It’s hard to confront someone who is fun and flaky. Everyone wants to have fun; everyone loves a charmer who makes things fun. Relationships are easy when we avoid uncomfortable problems. But a relationship characterized by charm over character and style over substance is like a beautiful shade tree with shallow roots. Everything is fine in good weather, but it only takes a mild storm to topple the tree.
Shallow and superficial relationships might suffice in social settings, but family relationships—relationships that should be loving, nurturing, supportive, and enduring—require work. In order to make a family work, you have to be responsible and hold each other accountable. If you choose to do less, you undermine your family relationships.
So, how do you begin this crucial conversation with your brother? To minimize his defensiveness, factually describe the gap between what occurred and what you expected, then ask why. For example, you might say, “Phil, when we were together at Thanksgiving, you told us you would call and arrange for a snow removal service for Mom. After talking with Mom, I realized you didn’t make the arrangements.” Next ask a diagnostic question: “Why?”
Let’s suppose he responds by trying to make you feel bad for bringing it up. He says, “You know I do a lot for this family and I don’t appreciate you nagging me and making such a big deal of such a little thing.” Clearly, this is a manipulation. Your brother assumes that if he can get you on the defensive, you’ll feel you’re the bad guy for bringing it up and you’ll back off.
Don’t give up or give in. Doing so only rewards him for being irresponsible and manipulative and undermines your relationship with him. That’s not serving you, your mother, or your brother.
This is a good time to use a contrasting statement to share your good intentions. “Phil, I am very appreciative of the good things you do for the family and I don’t mean to nag you. I also don’t want to make a mountain out of a molehill. I do want to solve the problem of how we get things done in our family and I want us to be able to count on each other. I don’t want to quarrel, nor ignore important issues. Do you see it differently?” By sharing your intention, you clarify your motives, treat your brother respectfully, and suggest a mutual purpose.
If your brother responds that the snow eventually got cleared and missing the call was no big deal, you could share the consequences of him not following through. “Phil, when you didn’t make arrangements to have the snow cleared, Mom was snowbound. When she couldn’t reach you, she called me, and I had to cancel an important meeting and spend an afternoon on the phone.” Confronting him with the consequences of failing to keep his commitments can create the motivation on his part to do better in the future.
At this point the conversation is not over; you may have to share other consequences, check out your own story, or have a conversation about the relationship between the two of you. However, with this simple beginning of describing the gap, sharing your good intentions, and explaining consequences, you have established new expectations.
Over time, don’t let his failure to fulfill his commitments pass without confronting him. Use these skills to address bad behavior and stay focused on the problem, rather than allow him to talk around the problem or charm his way out of being accountable.
If you persistently and consistently confront his bad behavior, he’ll quickly realize his old ways don’t work. He will come to understand that when he is flaky, you’ll call him on it. This could be the key to helping him change. It will improve your feelings and quality of life, and perhaps strengthen your entire family.
All the best,