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Crucial Conversations QA

Improving Mother-Daughter Relationships

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Al Switzler 

Al Switzler is coauthor of three bestselling books, Influencer, Crucial Conversations, and Crucial Confrontations. His fourth book, Change Anything, will be available April 2011.

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Crucial Conversations

Q Dear Crucial Skills,

I need help to work through my relationship with my two married daughters. We live in different states and even though I would like them to call me more often, I initiate most of our conversations. I understand they are busy raising their children, but I need them in my life more than they are. I don’t want to know everything they do, but I would like to have conversations with them several times a week. I have listened to the Crucial Conversations Audio Companion several times and realize that, even though I am their mother, I cannot dictate or expect that they be my friend and talk on the phone daily. It is a delicate subject and I’m not sure how to approach them about it.

Ignored Mother

A Dear Ignored,

Some issues are more difficult to bring up than others. When there is a clear agreement it is easier to speak up, but this is rarely the case. The issue often morphs from something that was acceptable to something that was borderline to something that bugs you. In the course of that evolution, we rarely find a way to speak up, and now, at the end of the process, we feel we can’t.

For example, a friend and neighbor you socialize with has had some hard times and now he or she spends whatever time you have together complaining. Every interaction is a downer and makes you feel like Dr. Phil with a muzzle.

Or what do you do when you feel that every conversation with your best friend is one sided? You ask about what’s new, about his or her family, about the economy, about the news (etc.), but he or she never asks any questions about your life. It feels like pulling teeth to have a two-sided conversation.

Or how do you bring up and discuss the fact that your spouse never expresses appreciation? It doesn’t matter what you do for him or her—give flowers, change a flat tire, etc.—he or she never thanks you for your time or efforts.

I bring up these examples because, faced with similar situations, I tell myself stories and explain away the other person’s actions by saying “It’s just how she is,” “He wasn’t raised correctly,” “She will never change,” or “If I speak up, I will just be seen as needy, greedy, or selfish and it will sound like I’m singing loudly, ‘ME! ME! ME!'” You are not alone. I, too, have several of these unaddressed issues on my radar screen. (Yes, we all have challenges.) Maybe as I share some principles and advice, I’ll help find my own answers.

So here is the challenge: How do we determine if we need to speak up? Ask yourself these questions:

Am I acting it out instead of talking it out? The major way we do this is to talk about the person and the problem instead of talking to the person about the issue.

Is that little voice in my head constantly bugging me? If that little voice is saying, “Why doesn’t she call?” “Why do I have to initiate every conversation?” or “Why can’t she be an adult about this?” then I can guarantee subtle nonverbal messages are leaking out—loudly. They will show your frustration and judgments almost every time.

Am I downplaying the costs of not speaking up and exaggerating the dangers of speaking up? If you are trying too hard to convince yourself to remain silent, you have a cost-benefit problem—you’re only counting the costs and not the benefits.

Have I convinced myself that I’m helpless, that there is nothing else I can do? The masters we studied always found a next step, even if that meant working to increase their skills or finding a friend to talk to about the issue to increase their options.

So here are a couple of strategies to help you master your stories and improve your relationships with your daughters.

Make a new agreement. Tell your daughters you’d welcome the opportunity to talk a couple of times a week and find convenient times to do so. For example, suggest that you could call each Sunday night and ask them if there is a regular and convenient time they might call you. If they agree, then you are well on your way to a solution.

Share your intentions. Tell your daughters you’d like to have more regular contact. Tell them what you don’t want—which is to be an interruption during busy times or to take a lot of their time. Tell them you’d like to hear and share what’s happening in their lives, but you don’t think long conversations are necessary. If that works for them, you have a plan.

At this point, there are two options. If they say no, you need to talk about their reasons for doing so and alternative solutions that would work for them. If they agree but don’t follow through, you’ll have to hold them accountable to your plan. Both of these conversations will be much easier to hold because you are already talking and expectations are clear. This is true for family, friends, neighbors, and coworkers. (Are you listening to yourself, Al?)

I’ll close with a personal story. For a number of years (okay, ten or twelve), my mother and I didn’t talk very much. Without getting into too many details, let me admit that I quit calling often to see if she would call me. She only called when there was a crisis or when she needed money, and from my perspective, she often didn’t tell the truth. I told myself some very clever stories about her motives and my situation was framed by watching and listening to my wife talk to her mother a couple of times a week. I admired their relationship, so after several years, I told myself a better story and called my mother. After a few calls, I asked if she would call me every once in a while “just to talk.” It was hard, even awkward, at first, but it got better. She still didn’t call very often, but I did. We talked almost every week for years, and our relationship improved. Four years ago, she passed away and I can’t tell you how glad I am that I took that step to call more often.

Best wishes,

Al

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Al Switzler

Al Switzler is a New York Times bestselling author, keynote speaker, and leading social scientist for organizational change. For thirty years, Al has delivered engaging keynotes for an impressive list of clientele including AT&T, Xerox, IBM, and Sprint. Al’s work has been translated into twenty-eight languages, is available in thirty-six countries, and has generated results for three hundred of the Fortune 500. read more

19 thoughts on “Improving Mother-Daughter Relationships”

  1. A daughter’s point of view. I wouldn’t talk to them. It will just put pressure on them when really what you want is for them to WANT to call you. Talking will make them want to call you less – it is literally too much responsibility on top of everything else. I’d use email. And don’t expect them to answer. Send stuff that’s interesting and funny, news about you and what new things you’re doing, and other family news. We’re not really phone people any more. The phone demands that you drop what you’re doing and talk and if they had that luxury they’d probably already call you more often. My mother switched to doing this and it’s wonderful. Now when I call her, she’s obviously happy that I have called and never says, “you haven’t called in forever” or any of the stuff she used to say. I’d say it’s crucial non-conversation.

  2. Al, I like your strategies. I’d like to add, from my own experience, a few other comments. This will take some strength on the part of the mom. Please ask your daughters to honestly tell you if there’s anything about your conversations that YOU could change that would make it easier for them to have phone calls with you. As a self test, make sure, when you talk, that you aren’t doing these things that we sometimes do with family members and friends without realizing it: complaining a lot; talking mainly about yourself; critizing or nagging when they share about their lives.

    Also from personal experience, if your daughter wraps up the conversation and says she needs to go, honor that and get off the phone quickly. Sometimes moms take the sign-off statement as a time to start a whole new conversation, which can be frustrating for the other person who feels they must be rude in order to terminate the conversation.

    You might think about filling some communication needs by text message or email, or posting on a Facebook page if they do that, which keep you in touch without taking as much time for the busy young moms. My dad and I communicate by email as much as by phone and I’ve saved many of his emails just as I saved my grandmother’s written letters; they will be a precious record of our relationship.

    Initiating the conversation and accepting the feedback lovingly can be the start of a whole new, satisfying level of relationship with your daughters.

  3. i think the mother-daughter lady is out of whack. she want to talk to her daughters ‘several’ times a week — knowing that her daughters have kids and therefore households to run, husbands and probably jobs. mother-daughter needs to get involved in some volunteer work or something and leave the daughters alone. once a week is more than enough to visit with her daughters and get updated on their lives.

  4. I agree with the other two comments, particularly Ange’s. I would also encourage you to evaluate your perspective. It is possible that when you talk on the phone that you are focused on your needs and not your daughter’s – including the timing, length, pace, etc. of the call. You do not need to stop being you, just try to remember what it was like when your daughters were small, one was crying in the other room, or you were finally having a sweet moment with one, or whatever, and someone called or showed up. It’s not that you didn’t want to talk with the other person, it was just outside of your bandwidth at the moment.

    That said, there are such things as insensitive children, but I’d start with working on me first. You might reconsider frequency too. For me right now (with 8 children still at home and one away) once per week with mom and dad is wonderful and rewarding for both. If they started pressuring for more than that I probably still wouldn’t have the time to do, but now would just feel badly about it.

    Other ideas: use Skype (or similar) if you both have good Internet access to add a face with the voice. Eye contact is a grand thing. Of course if it adds complication it might not help. Also, be sure that you are busy enough in your day that you are not needy – i.e. that you feel like you are just sitting around and waiting for the conversation. Be busy with your life so that you are both in the same boat. If you don’t have as much to do, go volunteer and fill your schedule. Then when you talk, you are both in the same boat, you have more interesting things to share (don’t over-do it) and you’ll be more fulfilled if the calls fall through.

    Just some random thoughts on the issue here. Very best wishes to you and your family!

  5. Technology may be a factor here. My daughter and I discussed the phone. She doesn’t like it; doesn’t use it much. She likes Instant Messages. We text each other back and forth on our cell phones. That is what works for her and for all of her friends.

    It’s not the same as a phone call. Sometimes you send a message and you don’t get a response. So I’ve had to let go of my need for a response. I know that she read my message. When she’s ready, she will send me a message which may be a response to mine or on another topic.

    It’s a different method and it is very popular.

  6. I always enjoyed talking to my mom but there were times in my life when I didn’t call, I let her call me. At other times, I seemed to be the one calling most of the time. It was never that I didn’t want to talk to her or vice versa, it was just a matter of what else was going on in our lives at the time. (Mom passed away several years ago and I miss those calls we shared.) I want to suggest that the mother who asked this question may end up realizing after talking to her daughters that regardless of who initiates the calls, she is still having conversations with her daughters. Her daughters may not make it a priority to call her but (like me) enjoy the calls she makes to them very much. As a working mom of young kids, I can say I don’t make a lot of calls to loved ones, but I still love those people very much and I enjoy talking to them. I hope they work it out because it sounds like they are all close even though the daughters don’t make it a point to call. Another idea is some interactions with her daughters via email, texting, or other electronic means.

  7. There’s lots to say on this subject, of course…but really, if you want to talk to someone – call them. Don’t keep score. If they don’t want to talk to you, you’ll know. If you don’t, you have a worse relationship than you think.

  8. Others make an important point that I wished was brought up earlier by the author. The generational gap and our preferred method of communication may be the biggest obstacle to overcome here. Many of us from the millenial generation would rather have a barium enema on live TV than talk for any length of time in a face to face conversation or even on the phone. It is sad that we are losing these skills with our techno – busy culture, but it is the truth. Texting and social networks are the choices of communication in many of the younger set, so mom and daughters may need to come to a compromise. Daughters have a weekly conversation on the phone with mom. Mom gets a facebook account or learns how to tweet in order to get up to speed for the rest of the time. We recently had a leadership class at our organization taught by Stacey Payne of Michigan, who did an excellent job pointing out the differences in dealing with generational differences and biases in the workplace. It applies as well outside the office!

  9. A woman with grown children needs to have a life outside of her children. Her desire to talk several times a week sounds co-dependent and excessive to me. Maybe she could volunteer to be a “big sister” to a lonely, underpriviliged child and let her daughters set the pace for how much and how often they communicate, in any form.

  10. I encourage the mother to think about why she wants to talk with her daughters so often. My mother asks me for weekly phone calls and it’s essentially her telling me what she’s been eating and watching on tv, or gossip about other people. It’s very one sided despite my speaking up about it. I came to the conclusion that she must want to be seen and my contribution is listening. But frankly, I don’t want to do it more than once a week.

  11. “but I would like to have conversations with them several times a week.”

    This lady is needy. SHE needs to get a life! They are grown up now Mom, and you need to back off. I don’t push myself on my 2 kids, because my Mom did that to me and it was terrible. When I was 38 yo, living alone in my house, I spent a night with a friend, and Mom called every hour all night long because I “should have been home!” That’s how bad it was. Daily phone calls were required to keep her in check. I was forced to lie sometimes, which I hated myself for later. The alternative would have been severing the relationship and that would have hurt her severely. I call my son at college about once every 7 to 10 days, just to see how it’s going, if he needs anything, and say “I love you.” If he needs anything, or advice on something though, he calls me. I think we have an open, healthy relationship. Our conversations are rarely more than 3 minutes long, unless we are planning an outing together.

    Frank

  12. Al, I like your approach…. as well as your books. Thank you for sharing your own experience with your mother. Relationships with our mothers can be the hardest of all…. and are the foundation for all relationships we experience as we go through life. Exploring our mother relationships can also be insightful for how we interact and deal with conflict at work and with our partners. Finding a way to build that relationship before it is too late is what we at Mother Whisperers want to encourage everyone to do and find peace of mind.

  13. Al, I do not agree. I am a mom of 2 grown daughters, I love talking with them, but would never tell them I want to hear from them every week. It is just artificial. The girls are grown women. Maybe Mom needs to get more in her life.

  14. My grown daughter lives 1000 miles away so we don’t get together very often. I don’t nag her about calling, etc. She has emailed me twice this year and I’ve done a few times more. My last e-mail to her was on St. Patrick’s Day where I asked her if her schedule permitted her to come home for Easter. I realized she probably wouldn’t be able to make the trip but wanted her to know she is always welcome to come home anytime on any day. However, I’ve never heard from her. I think she should have the courtesy to tell me her work schedule is overloaded at this time of year. I’ve sort of left it in her lap to let me know. She has a good job so I know she could afford it. I did pay for her flight home at Christmas time in 2010. She was too busy in 2011. Do you think I should give her a call to ask about her plans? She never calls and I don’t either because in the past, I end up leaving a message and she never returns the call.

  15. Ignored mother is hardly ignored. For married daughters with children she gets to talk with her children quite frequently. What difference does it makes who calls who, as long as they appear to be happy to hear from you. Don’t ask for more than they can give, when they are caring enough to call you and take your call on a regular basis. I haven’t heard from my daughter in 10 years. On Mother’s day all those years ago she told me she did not want to talk to me anymore. I don’t know why, but a year later after very tentative attempts to stay in contact, she called me on Mother’s Day to tell me, “absolutely do not contact me…no phone calls, emails, letters!” So, I would be grateful and happy for a call once a month. Appreciate what you have and stop calling yourself “Ignored Mother.”

  16. Hi everyone. I have read all the above comments and found them interesting, everyone has there own way of coping with this. I am finding it very hard, my daughter and I have always been close but the last few years she has pulled away. It feels like a bereavement, as I hardly see her and my five grandchildren anymore and when I do it’s a whistle stop visit 40 minutes max. I am concerned as I found out there has been abuse in the marriage. My son-in-law has been physically abusive to the children and I was given temporary custody of the kids as a result. Since then they have re-united and I feel her husband is dictating when she can come over. Her mobile is blocked there is no landline anymore and I feel when I text that he replies, the wording doesn’t sound like hers. So my concern is their safety and I have no way of knowing how they are until I see them. I don’t know how to deal with this, my health is suffering and I have become deeply depressed, I don’t know how it’s going to end I just have to wait and hope they will be safe.

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