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Crucial Conversations QA

Talking About Starting a Family

Dear Ron,

How can I apply my new found crucial conversations skills to an uncomfortable issue in my marriage?

After fifteen years together, four of them as a legally married couple, I’d like to start a family but I can’t get my husband to talk about it. I’m almost thirty-three years old and I would like to have this conversation sooner rather than later for obvious reasons!

To complicate matters, my husband knows I attended a Crucial Conversations trainer certification workshop last year, and may resist having my skills forced on him.

Sincerely,
Mommy Dreams

Dear Mommy,

It sounds like you are facing an undiscussable—an issue that, like an exposed nerve, sets off a strong negative reaction when touched. Every time the subject is mentioned, the conversation turns contentious and ends in an icy silence or an angry fight. Over time, this becomes a topic we can’t discuss without bad feelings and we conclude, “It’s better to let a sleeping dog lie.”

Without really intending to, we’ve created an undiscussable. We find it’s better to keep the peace and endure the occasional irritation than have yet another blow-up. We lose hope that it will ever get resolved. We live with uncomfortable silence and sometimes pain.

To effectively dialogue, you must make it safe for the other person to talk with you. Resolving undiscussables requires an extra portion of safety because, almost by definition, undiscussables are created by a lack of safety which pushes participants into silence and violence. It takes a lot of safety to initially engage in an undiscussable and even more safety to see it through to completion.

You want to have children together but can’t get your husband to talk about it. This undiscussable is not a peripheral family issue, it is a core issue. This lies at the heart of who you are as a family, your joint aspirations, and the quality of life you will enjoy. To let this undiscussable fester without resolution will be to undermine your marriage and family.

Build Safety. Safety is created by two essential conditions: Mutual Purpose and Mutual Respect. Start deconstructing this undiscussable by demonstrating respect. Rather than blind-siding your husband by bringing up the subject during his favorite ball game, ask to set a time to talk with him that’s mutually convenient. “Honey, I would like to talk with you about an important subject and I want to pick a time that we won’t be disturbed for about an hour, a time we can focus on each other and not be distracted. Would tonight after dinner work for you?” This courtesy helps to build Mutual Respect.

Set Expectations. When you actually begin the conversation, set some expectations and guidelines that will help maintain the respect you show each other and continue to build safety. “Thank you for clearing time for our talk,” you say without sarcasm. “My goal is not to make a decision tonight. I just want to fully understand how you feel and help you understand how I feel, as well. Can I make one request? Let’s agree that neither of us will leave until we’re both done, until we both feel heard. Is that okay?”

If he’s impatient and interrupts with something like, “What’s this about? What is it you want to talk about?” Try, “I’m not trying to be dramatic, it’s just that before we talk, I want to agree on some guidelines for our discussion. Is that okay?”

Establish Mutual Purpose. Help to establish Mutual Purpose by telling him what you really want. “I love you so much and I want us to always be together. I don’t want anything to strain our relationship. I want to understand how you feel and I want you to understand how I feel.” Having reinforced respect and Mutual Purpose, share with him what you are thinking and how you are feeling about inviting children into your family.

Don’t Judge. A few no-no’s: Don’t attribute motive to him; don’t judge him based on a standard in your head, and don’t make threats or ultimatums. A bad example: “You are so irresponsible and lazy. That’s why you don’t want children. You don’t care one bit about me or what I want. Well, Peter Pan, it’s time to choose . . . ” Rather, keep thinking back to what you really want: to respectfully and lovingly share your thoughts and feelings and deeply understand his. You don’t want to shame, manipulate, pressure, or trick him. You want this dialogue to be honest, open, and loving.

If the dialogue takes a hurtful turn—if he becomes silent and/or gets upset or if you feel the same—go into a listening mode: inquire, paraphrase, reflect, prime. Don’t push your point. Demonstrate your understanding of his meaning.

Take a Break. If the dialogue breaks down, if feelings become too raw, or if he doesn’t want to continue, show respect. To continue at this point could be to cross the line into controlling or disrespectful behaviors. Call for a strategic withdrawal.

First, suggest a break. “This is proving to be a tough issue for us. Why don’t we take a break for now?” Second, thank him. “Thank you for being willing to talk this over with me. I appreciate your sharing and listening.” Third, establish the next step and time frame. “Why don’t we take some time and put some thought into this and see if we can get clear about what having children would mean to us and our life together. Then how about this weekend we do a picnic and see how we’re feeling?”

Sometimes taking a break can help us collect our thoughts, process what we’ve experienced, and help us restore our emotional batteries. The danger becomes that in disengaging we are “putting off” our dialogue or cementing the subject as an undiscussable. The key comes in respectfully agreeing to take a break from the topic and agreeing when you will continue the conversation.

The title of our book, Crucial Conversations is plural. This conversation with your husband about having children might not be the resolution of the issue, but rather the beginning of several conversations—each one expanding the Pool of Shared Meaning, each one building respect, Mutual Purpose, and Safety. Over time, feelings and ideas can change, options can surface, and a crisis of disagreement can form the foundation for a stronger love and a family that has learned how to work through the toughest of issues.

All the very best,
Ron

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Ron McMillan

Ron McMillan is a New York Times bestselling author, keynote speaker, and leading social scientist for organizational change. For thirty years, Ron has delivered engaging keynotes at major conferences including the American Society of Training and Development and the Society for Human Resource Management. Ron’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 “Talking About Starting a Family”

  1. I would add that you may encounter additional challenges after creating enough safety to make the undiscussable discussable. As the two of you begin to share your stories, you may benefit from engaging in independent or mutual discovery to create a new, shared story that is better informed. For example, a friend of ours was not sure whether she was ready to add children to her family because she had heard from others nothing but ‘your life will never be your own,’ ‘sleep now because you won’t be able to sleep later,’ and so on. But when she heard from others how emotionally rewarding and funny children can be, her entire perspective changed.

    Another friend wasn’t sure he and his wife could afford to raise children. They met with a financial advisor and learned about a variety of ways to lessen the financial burden, which made him much more comfortable with the decision to have children.

    I wish you the best of luck with your truly crucial conversation.

  2. After rereading the article again, it occurs to me that there is little to no mention of the emotional side of the relationship. While I agree that the topic has been created into an “undiscussable”, the history of the relationship is ignored, and answered only in the context of how to apply the skill sets you teach.

    Point in fact. The couple has been together for 15 years. Point in fact. The husband does not wish to engage in the conversation about starting a family. That’s pretty much all we really know. We do not know if it’s an abusive relationship, we do not know if he made a statement early in the relationship stating that he did not want to have children, nor did “Mommy” (based on what was published) indicate the reason why he was disinclined to discuss the topic. We don’t know how old he is – what if he is in his early 20’s or late 50’s? All of this information changes the dynamic of the relationship and conversation.

    Directing her to create a safe environment, establish a mutual purpose, and to not judge the responses, are all good in a healthy relationship. However, this one appears, on the surface, to be extremely unhealthy and potentially dangerous to the writer. It may have been better to reference a relationship conversation in another context, rather than an emotionally charged one like deciding to have children.

    Generally, your advice and use of the skills you present are spot on. However, this one I fear falls way short of the mark, and it should have been suggested to the writer to seek marital counseling if possible, or individual counseling if more appropriate.

  3. @Scott That’s great advice. Based on the information “Mommy Dreams” shared, a crucial conversation (or a series of crucial conversations as Ron suggests) might uncover potentially dangerous issues that should be addressed in counseling. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

  4. Scott is RIGHT ON. They are not discussing whether or not to buy a car. This is life and core values. First problem was 11 years before marriage, what is that? This discussion should have been clear many times over during the relationship before marriage. Maybe not a threat, but definitely a deal breaker due to lack of basic pre-marriage communication and aspirations.

  5. I struggle with the advice to set up space to talk and establishing safety without revealing the topic (last paragraph, “Setting Expectations”). In the first place, it’s unrealistic to think that the first conversation, Setting Up Time to Talk, wouldn’t include a question from the spouse along the lines of, “Sure, what about?” If one were to persist in trying to make the conversation about setting up time and not the topic, it seems that would erode trust and build unnecessary anxiety. As others have noted, this is a 15 year relationship, and there is likely more than one topic of discussion that could be at play, such as finances, upcoming family visits, or housework distribution. It seems unfair to make someone wonder what it is they are agreeing to meet about.

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