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Intimidating Crucial Conversations

Dear Crucial Skills,

My father-in-law is a very powerful person and I don’t feel comfortable speaking honestly about anything with him. If I ask him a question about an issue I want to resolve, he announces his opinion then cuts off any discussion by saying, “Well, that’s how life is sometimes” as he stands up to leave.

I think he is very wise and would like to learn from him, but I can’t get him to engage in any kind of dialogue. As a result, I leave feeling like I don’t exist and that he thinks he knows all. My husband seems to take after him so I feel like I’m in a communication desert all by myself. Do you have any suggestions?

Sincerely,
Craving Communication

Dear Craving,

I would have given a different answer twenty years ago than I will today. I’m still very much a believer in people’s potential to change. However, some life experiences with a wonderful variety of loved ones have led me to conclude that everyone is a package. Myself included. We all have idiosyncrasies, habits, and proclivities—some of which are the source of our genius and some of which drive everyone around us batty. And sometimes, the genius and the quirkiness flow from the exact same attribute.

I say this as prelude because, while I will advise you to hold a crucial conversation, I will also encourage you to work on yourself first. Clarify your motives before even attempting the conversation. If your motive is to “fix” or “change” your father-in-law, you’re more likely to be disappointed than effective. If instead your goal is to share feedback then accept his freedom to accommodate or ignore it, you will not only come across entirely differently (i.e., not needy or pushy), but you will be more likely to have influence. Ironically, if your motive is to control, you not only fail to gain control, but you lose your influence. If you give up trying to control others, you gain influence in the bargain.

With that said, here is some advice about how to hold the conversation itself.

Hold the right conversation. Often, we fail at the outset because we dive into the wrong topic. For example, we talk about content—what just happened—when we want to talk about a pattern—something that happens regularly. This could happen in your case because you address something your father-in-law just said to you when your real issue is a pattern of these sorts of comments over time. Your goal needs to be to have a pattern conversation. And that calls for a special approach.

Timing is everything. Don’t wait until you’re bugged to talk. That’s what most of us do with our pattern conversations. We wait for yet another instance of someone behaving badly then we pounce on it; not to address what just happened, but to dump our laundry list of grievances from ages past. If you want to talk about a pattern, pick a time that is not clouded with a recent transgression. It not only helps you be in a proper mindset, but it helps avoid giving the other person an opportunity to make excuses about the pattern by pointing to special issues in the present instance. For example, your father-in-law might say, “I had to walk out just now because I have a conference call in half an hour!”

Make it safe. You have all the right information in your question to create safety at the beginning of this conversation. Read it again. You clearly care about your father-in-law. You respect him. You want something from him that he is likely to feel flattered giving, so that’s what you need to make clear as you start.

For example, you might say, “I’d like to talk about some ways I could have a better relationship with you. I value the relationship we have, and I’d like to be even closer and more comfortable. I admire you, sometimes to the point of feeling intimidated around you. I also see you as a great source of wisdom, something I’d like to take advantage of even more than I do now. And yet, there are some things in how we interact that don’t work for me. I’m hoping it is okay to share how I see it and find out how either you, or I, or both of us could communicate better.

Ask permission. One of the best ways to ensure others feel safe is to sincerely ask for permission before launching into the crucial conversation. If your father-in-law might be uncomfortable with this level of communication, it is all the more important to help him feel in control by asking his consent before launching into your concerns. All you need do is add, “Would that be okay?” to the above monologue.

Change media. Judging from your description, it may be that your father-in-law will be too uncomfortable to have this conversation face-to-face. If that is the case, you may want to try mixed media. If you choose to write a letter, I would make the same “make it safe” statement from above then add, “I think the best way to express some of what I wanted to say is in writing—so I’ve written this out. But my hope is that we can discuss it afterward if you’re comfortable doing so. If not, then I understand and will be fine keeping things the way they are now.” You’ll notice that the last phrase tests whether you have surrendered your hope of controlling him or not. Be sure you have or your words will ring hollow.

I hope these ideas help. It sounds like you’ve fallen into the same pattern with your husband, so I hope these suggestions are a step toward creating the relationship you clearly want to have with him as well.

Sincerely,
Joseph

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Joseph Grenny

Joseph Grenny is a New York Times bestselling author, keynote speaker, and leading social scientist for business performance. For thirty years, Joseph has delivered engaging keynotes at major conferences including the HSM World Business Forum at Radio City Music Hall. Joseph’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

6 thoughts on “Intimidating Crucial Conversations”

  1. “Often, we fail at the outset because we dive into the wrong topic. For example, we talk about content—what just happened—when we want to talk about a pattern—something that happens regularly.” – WOW! You just BLEW me away with this statement. You are so right! So many times I have fallen into talking about the “new incident” and don’t bring in the “pattern”. You have given me something to chew on today! Thank you.

  2. Hi Craving,

    People who won’t allow you to get a word in edgewise are probably trembling inside.

    Fear blocks us from growth and acceptance.

    Your father in law may be a powerful man but what did it take for him to get to the place that he is in now? A lot of bumps and bruises.

    He’s guarded. Find what you do agree on in his conversation and build on that. If there are any differences of opinion, analyze whether its more important for him to know what you’re thinking or to burst his bubble.

    Deductive reasoning simply reveals that he is older than you are.
    Older people don’t always like being taught by younger people.
    If he ask for your opinion then that’s your opening.
    He’s a man. Men don’t like being shown up by women.
    Again, when he asks your opinion, then share it.

    Until then, find some people who share like ideas, and converse with them. Have some girlfriend time.

    If there aren’t any people around, then write. Journalism your thoughts is a very good way to sharpen your mind and monitor your own growth at the same time.

    Lastly,

    He’s a fella. Even though your his daughter in law, all men have a hunter’s instinct and when you stop pursuing a conversation with him, he’ll start pursuing one with you. He will be able to tell when you’re not trying to tell him ANYTHING anymore, and that my friend will certainly be when he will become interested in what you are thinking.

    The wonderful thing about all of this is that you can change your angle about conversing with your father-in-law and strengthen your relationship with your husband all at the same time.

    Read A Return to Love a Reflection on a Course in Miracles by Marianne Williamson. It will open your mind to a whole new way of thinking.

    ~Doniell~

  3. Joseph,

    You give Craving Communication some good advice, but I wanted to shed a different light on this situation. What she describes appears, from my perspective, to be some sort of bias. Powerful people tend to have a bias toward people who don’t present as powerful or aggressive. Yes, you will feel ignored. Another strategy to consider is modifying, or mirroring, his behavior in order to get his attention. Say something pointed and walk away. I have found this strategy tends to bring the power player to view you differently and therefore respond differently. This can be the prepare the power player for a crucial conversation with you. My two cents.

    Rebecca

  4. Joseph,

    You give Craving Communication some good advice, but I wanted to shed a different light on this situation. What she describes appears, from my perspective, to be some sort of bias. Powerful people tend to have a bias toward people who don’t present as powerful or aggressive. Yes, you will feel ignored. Another strategy to consider is modifying your behavior by mirroring his behavior in order to get his attention. Say something pointed and walk away. I have found this strategy tends to bring the power player to view you differently and therefore respond differently. This can prepare the power player for a crucial conversation with you. My two cents.

  5. @Rebecca
    Three cheers for Rebecca! I found this article sorely wanting and a bit disappointing. I seriously believe Craving’s topic is the correct topic because it is Craving’s topic. The intimidation Craving feels is also valid, the bad behavior of the father-in-law and husband only serves to invalidate that, and I do not see anything that addresses this. Everyone deserves respect and that is not being offered from either party Craving needs to deal with.

  6. As always, great advice Joseph. I might start with the husband first in that he seems to exhibit similar patterns and with whom a deeper connection exists and then move on to the more difficult case of the father in law. You were so right in advising that she get clear on her motives first.

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