Category Archives: Crucial Conversations

Crucial Conversations QA

How to Enjoy a Difficult Relationship

Dear Emily,

I have an older sister who I don’t always see eye-to-eye with. I often find myself getting frustrated with her because of her actions. I know that I have a deeply rooted story about her—that she is very self-centered. I’ve asked myself why a reasonable, rational, person would do what she does and I can always come up with an answer for that scenario. But when I see all of the scenarios as a pattern that has persisted my whole life, I have a really hard time telling another story besides my negative one. I’ve tried talking to her about specific situations and we usually come to common ground but it always happens again. It’s hard to point out the pattern without sounding as if I am keeping a list of her mistakes. She also gets very defensive because she sees it as attacking. I’m not perfect either so have no right to point out her flaws. I want to get along with her and enjoy spending time with her but honestly find dealing with her tedious and exhausting. What can I do?

Best Regards,
Exhausted and Discouraged

Dear Exhausted and Discouraged,

I have an older sister that I don’t always see eye-to-eye with. She is brilliant, informed, dynamic, opinionated, and oh so very different from me. One of the very best parts of our relationship, which is very dear to me, is that we don’t see eye-to-eye. Invariably, when we are together, I learn something new, either about the world or about myself. Either way, her different view of the world is a blessing in my life.

I share that not to say “be like me” or “too bad your sister isn’t as cool as mine.” Instead, I simply want to point out all the baggage that comes with a phrase like “we don’t see eye-to-eye.” When did seeing eye-to-eye become the goal? When did not seeing eye-to-eye become a bad thing, or something to be overcome or worked around? Diversity of opinion, thought, approach, and experience can enrich us if we let it.

As I read your inquiry, I wanted to know more. I wanted all the details of specific things your sister had done so I could judge: is she really self-centered or are you stuck in your own negative story, a story that is blinding you from the reality of who your sister is? I kept thinking about variations of that question: is your story about your sister accurate? And then I realized… it doesn’t matter. You have done exactly what you need to do: you identified your story as a story, you challenged your story, and then you went and discussed your story with your sister. That is more than 99 percent of people out there manage to do.

But you’re still stuck, right? And why? Because crucial conversations don’t solve every problem. Because crucial conversations don’t take away a person’s right to choose how he or she will behave. Your sister, despite your conversations, still gets to choose who she is, who she wants to be, and how she will behave. Your choice is to decide what kind of boundaries you want to put in place, in your life and in your relationships.

Here is a suggestion of how to think about your way forward. It’s a variation on what we teach in Start With Heart that I have found helpful.

Think about your interactions with your sister. Try thinking of a specific interaction that didn’t go well, that was (as you described it) tedious or exhausting. Got it? Okay, now as you are thinking about that interaction, ask yourself: what do you really want? My guess is the first answer is to not be exhausted! Maybe you want peace or enjoyment. You want to be able to laugh and share. You want to feel energized and validated.

Now, next step (and here is where the variation comes in): what do you really want for your sister as she is right now? Sometimes when we simply ask ourselves “what do I really want for the other person?” the answer is all wrapped up in the changes we want him or her to make, the person we want him or her to become. We say things like, “I want her to be less self-centered.” But the key to drawing and maintaining healthy boundaries is to acknowledge who she is right then and ask, what do I want for her, as she is right now, and what do I want for my relationship with her, as she is right now? This doesn’t mean people can’t change and that we can’t have influence. Life is not about being frozen in a specific point in time. It does mean that we need to accept who people are today, where they are today, and then make a decision about what relationship we want to have with them today.

I have found that as I do that, I am able to recognize and enjoy the positive aspects of a current relationship because I can place a boundary between me and the negative aspects of the relationship. This might mean that I don’t do certain things with certain people and it absolutely means that I don’t expect certain things from certain people. Instead, I am able to better enjoy someone for who they are. I let go of the expectations or hopes I had for what our relationship should be or could be, and acknowledge the relationship for what it is.

I may be reading far more into your words than what is there… and yet in them I feel a sense of hurt and loss, that your relationship with your sister isn’t what you want it to be and you are carrying that with you. Chances are you are carrying the weight of that disappointment into every interaction you have with her. So, my suggestion is to lay down the weight, see her as she is, and decide what type of relationship you want to have with her—just as she is today.

Best of Luck,
Emily

Crucial Conversations QA

No Time for Dialogue

The following article was first published on September 12, 2007.

Dear Crucial Skills,

I am a first-line supervisor at a hospital and was fortunate enough to attend a Crucial Conversations training. I enjoyed it thoroughly and got some good tips on dealing with crucial conversations.

The problem we run into in the hospital is that we do not always have the luxury of spending time on dialogue when a crucial issue arises due to circumstance that require immediate intervention. These often are situational and necessary to prevent less than optimal patient outcomes.

How do we relay this to the people we are communicating with? It is always our goal to keep the trust of our staff members, but often things become clouded with their emotional response to a situation that had to be addressed immediately.

Thanks,
No Time to Talk

Dear No Time,

To begin, I’d like to take a moment to thank you—not only for your question, but for the incredible work that you and your fellow healthcare professionals do each day. Your concern for the patients you care for reminds us all of the best that is in us.

Most of us have seen enough emergency room TV dramas to know that healthcare professionals don’t always have the luxury of time. There are life and death choices that must be made without sufficient information or time for consideration and discussion.

People across numerous industries face a similar problem—not enough time to fully dialogue when, and sometimes because, the stakes are so high. We may find ourselves in positions where we feel compelled to make a decision without enough time or input. In these situations, when dialogue is limited and not every concern can be addressed before acting, team members may feel left out or marginalized. So what do you do when there isn’t time for dialogue?

Let me share a couple of thoughts with you.

First, decide how you will decide ahead of time. Most people typically understand that because of time constraints or pressures, dialogue is not always possible. ICU nurses, anesthesiologists, and respiratory technicians all understand that they will be involved in life or death situations when seconds make a difference.

However, although we realize such situations will inevitably occur, we often do a poor job of planning for them. We don’t set clear expectations around how decisions will be made in those critical moments—will this be a consensus decision with everyone agreeing before we implement it? Are key decision makers merely going to consult with the rest of the team and then announce the decision? Will the decision already be made and be passed on as a command? If we haven’t carefully considered, chosen, and then communicated how we will make decisions in time-sensitive moments, we create situations in which team members feel resentful and undervalued because their input was not considered. By clarifying up front how decisions will be made, and inviting dialogue about the decision-making process before a crisis, we make sure that all team members are confident in the process for handling crises.

Next, never use the refrain “we don’t have time” as an excuse not to dialogue. Most of us are hurtling through life at a pace that would astonish and exhaust our great-grandparents. As we pick up our pace, we tend to overestimate both the time it will take to effectively dialogue and the cost of slowing down. We think, “I just don’t have 45 minutes to sit and talk to her about this,” not realizing that, with effective skills, many issues can be resolved much more quickly.

We also begin to think that if we take the time, the consequences will be severe. When a patient is lying on a stretcher bleeding out, the costs of slowing down are as high as they can get. But, more often than not, we think to ourselves, “I can’t take time for this right now because I have eight patients waiting to be seen and I need to get through in time to pick up my son from soccer practice and make it home in time to change clothes before going to parent-teacher conference night at my daughter’s school.” While occasionally whether or not we have time for dialogue is a factor of our circumstances, it is also often a reflection of our motive. Make sure you’re not making excuses when you should be holding a crucial conversation.

Finally, use your skills for good, not for avoidance. I’d like to make this last important point of clarification. Those who are skilled at dialogue never use their skills to avoid conversations, but rather to hold them effectively. Sometimes that may mean effectively delaying a conversation until a more appropriate time, but it never means dismissing the issue altogether. As people practice and use dialogue skills, they commonly find that they are holding fewer and fewer “crucial” conversations because they handle problems quickly and effectively as they arise, rather than waiting for them to simmer and erupt.

Best of luck,
Emily Hoffman

Crucial Conversations QA

Recovering From Childhood Stereotypes

Dear Steve,

I’ve learned much about interacting with people through my career experiences and training—including some of your training—as an engineering project manager. I have been quite successful at putting these skills into effect, and have even taught some of them to my kids. However, I have had very little success in applying the same skills with extended family members. In particular, these are people who have not been a part of my daily life for many years i.e., we get together occasionally but don’t interact regularly.

Although many relatives relate to me as the person I am today, my siblings, parents, and some cousins insist on treating me as the person I was many years ago as a child or teenager. They refuse to acknowledge any of my growth. I find it difficult to have meaningful relationships with people who treat me as they remember me as a child despite the fact that I am in my 50’s, have had a successful career, and have raised three successful children. Do you have any advice for how to hold these kinds of conversations?

Signed,
Stuck in the Past

Dear Stuck in the Past,

I can relate. I married the second youngest of eight children, which at the time seemed to be all upside. I was instantly part of a large family with lots of brothers- and sisters-in-law as well as many nieces and nephews. They are a wonderful family and I really enjoy my interactions with all of the siblings. What I didn’t realize at the time we were married, is that I was joining the family in a pre-established position of sorts.

My wife’s oldest brother is ten years older than she is, and for years, treated me like his little sister’s boyfriend when it came to certain matters. It wasn’t that he wasn’t nice and inviting, he just discounted my experience and wisdom on important topics. And it took years to change the overall tenor of our shared experiences.

So first of all, remember to be patient. This can take time—especially when the frequency of your interactions is every two years versus every four to six months. The challenge you face is a data challenge. The impression members of your extended family have is based on experiences, third party information exchanges between relatives, and distant memories—the kind that feel 100% fresh and accurate, but are more likely half distorted and fuzzy. All these things come together to form impressions which remain long after the data supporting them has ceased. And while communication can help in this type of situation, what really needs to happen is to alter their data stream, or in most cases, create a whole new data set based on who you are today. Let me further illuminate my meaning.

Some years ago, I was working on a project where we tried to showcase the skills and knowledge of recently hired employees. Or more specifically, get these employees to demonstrate their ever-growing knowledge base and understanding of their industry. These new hires tended to be younger and had little-to-no industry experience. This being the case, they found that leaders, especially those who had been in the organization for a long time, had trouble seeing these newer employees as much more than punk kids who’d just barely graduated from school. The people who worked closely with this group of younger, newer employees (especially members within the peer group) could see their growth and treated them with more respect. Those who were more removed (similar to your extended relatives and my brother-in-law), continued to hold the group to the same level of knowledge and experience at which they first experienced the group. These impressions and conclusions were so strong, that even when one of the newer employees had a breakthrough achievement, the members of the longer-tenured leadership group would attribute that success to some fluke of circumstance.

We discovered that the key to changing these assumptions was to change the experiences—or data—that created, and perhaps more importantly, reinforced these assumptions. They needed to find a way to demonstrate their new knowledge in a way that wasn’t overly showy or ostentatious lest they give rise to a new and different story.

So if it’s really important to you that your relatives see you as “all grown up,” then here’s some ways to think about demonstrating your knowledge and otherwise changing their data streams.

1. If others aren’t giving you credit for specific knowledge (whether it’s how to raise kids, or manage finances, etc.) find a way to engage with them on that topic. Share an article or video with them and create an opportunity for discussion. It could also be as simple as finding that person at the next family gathering and starting up a conversation on the topic.

2. Another great way to give them new data is to experience the outcome of your work. Let them spend time with your children so they get the sense that you’re a more skilled parent than they give you credit for, or let them see the template you created for a smashing financial plan.

3. You might also want to start with those who have the most sway with others in the family. If you can create shifts in their perceptions, they can start to reinforce who you really are rather than who everyone remembers you used to be.

Along the way, you may still have need to use your best crucial conversations skills to correct misconceptions and inaccuracies so be prepared for that. This will be most particularly needful for the ones you interact with least. And if you find that it’s not that important to you, then take comfort and satisfaction in the person you’re becoming and the immediate outcomes you have produced.

Best of Luck!
Steve

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Crucial Conversations QA

Caught in the Cross Fire

Dear Joseph,

I have a great family that I love. Individually, I have rewarding relationships with my father, my mother, and my sister. But put the three of them together in a room and the results are explosive. Things seemed to come to a head this year when my sister spent the entirety of Mother’s Day with her boyfriend and his family, rather than with our mother. My father was especially upset with what he perceived as disrespect for my mother. If I can see that some people in my life need to have a difficult conversation, is there anything I can do to encourage this and make it happen?

Signed,
Stuck in the Middle

Dear Stuck in the Middle,

My strongest admonition to you is embedded in the name you chose: “Stuck in the Middle.” Your biggest problem is that you see yourself in the middle. You aren’t. While you are affected by your parents’ and sister’s drama, it is not your drama. It is theirs. If you start thinking you can fix any of this for them, you’ll drive yourself insane. In addition to the inevitable effect of their unpleasant conflict, you’ll entangle yourself in the optional misery of feeling responsible to control it.

There are only three things you can do:

1. Set and hold boundaries.
Your first duty is to take responsibility for your own emotional well-being. Decide what conversations and situations you are and are not willing to be a part of. Let your dad know, for example, that you aren’t going to take sides in issues that aren’t yours. Let him know you love him and that you care, but you can’t do anything healthy by being involved. Let them know that when gatherings degenerate, you will elect to leave. And be prepared. If you have allowed yourself to play a role, even a passive “grin and bear it” role in the past, they are likely to resent and test your boundaries. They will see your healthy approach as a threat to their own denial about culpability in the drama. Plan for it and be clear about your own motives so their unconscious manipulation doesn’t guilt-trip you into falling back in.

2. Offer feedback, but not help.
The only thing you can offer them in sorting out their own misery is feedback. You cannot “help” them. Help typically takes the form of carrying messages, brokering peace deals, or talking someone down emotionally. This kind of help isn’t help—it’s enabling. What you can offer is feedback. You can help them see how their actions are creating their own drama and suggest healthier approaches. But never impose feedback. The best approach is to point to a Mutual Purpose and then make an offer. For example: “Dad, I know you hate it when you and my sister are fighting. And I know you love her. I know you just want a real relationship with her. I see you doing things that I believe are keeping you from that. I would be happy to offer that perspective if you want to hear it. If you don’t, I understand.”

3. Set and hold boundaries. Once your dad, sister, mom, or anyone has made their choice about whether they want to look at other options, step back. Let people know how their actions affect you and what you intend to do about it. Be careful not to do this in a judgmental and punishing way. Boundaries are not something you put down in order to manipulate others. They are there to take care of you. Don’t say, “If you guys start acting up again, I will walk out of this house!” That is not a boundary—it is a threat. Instead say, “I want to be with my family. But I also don’t want to stay in places that feel toxic to me. Sometimes I feel that way when we’re together. In the future, if I start to feel that way, I’ll probably take a walk, spend the evening out, or perhaps shorten my stay. Just want to let you know.”

Trust me—I feel your pain. As I get older and my extended family gets larger and more complicated, my words above are as much autobiography as they are advice!

Best wishes as you love the ones you’re with!
Joseph

Crucial Conversations QA

Balancing Safety in a Group

Dear Joseph,

I work as a consultant with churches. I recently had a participant in a group who kept pushing her agenda. Her pressure was impeding the group’s progress. I gently told her she seemed unwilling to move her stake. I acknowledged that we all go there from time to time, then asked her to open up a bit. She was silent from then on. I approached her later to ask how she was doing. She said she felt hurt and shut down. She said I had singled her out and embarrassed her. I apologized, but also told her that when we have strong opinions, we sometimes fail to make space for other people’s ideas. I also asked her how I could have handled this better. She suggested that in the future I should not single someone out but speak to the group as a whole. To me that seems disingenuous.

What could I have done differently so I could serve the group without embarrassing an individual?

Signed,
Facilitator’s Dilemma

Dear Facilitator’s Dilemma,

Your question gave me a flashback. I once had a chemistry professor try the tactic your participant suggested. A friend and I were cracking jokes during class in a large lecture hall with over 200 students. The professor abruptly stopped her lecture and said in an imperious voice, not unlike Professor McGonagall in Harry Potter, “Horseplay during my lectures is rude and unacceptable!”

She knew whom she was addressing. We knew whom she was addressing. Everyone else knew whom she was calling out. In fact, they all turned to see our response. I’m sure my face was a deep scarlet color. I know my friend’s was.

I find specific feedback disguised as a general statement to be disingenuous, manipulative, and ineffective. These statements are disingenuous because you aren’t saying what you really think. They are manipulative because they are an attempt to moderate someone’s behavior without overtly acknowledging that motive. And they are often ineffective because they substitute monologue for dialogue and problem solving.

The real issue is that the woman felt embarrassed. And the real question is, how can you create conditions for candor while minimizing the likelihood of embarrassment while in a group?

Here are a few suggestions:

1. Normalize mistakes. People don’t feel embarrassed because they make a mistake. They don’t even feel embarrassed about making a mistake publicly. Embarrassment comes not when we conclude we made a mistake, but when we believe we are a mistake. It is the belief that our identity and worth are threatened that provokes shame. You can help minimize this possibility by doing things early on in a discussion to normalize mistake-making. For example, if you’re facilitating a group where you suspect people will have strong and opposing opinions, you might start by saying, “I fully expect that we will have some vigorous debates. You are here because you have both influence and opinions. We need your opinions. We need you to advocate them as strongly as you feel them. Please do so! And we are also here to make a unified decision. What could get in the way of that?” Involve the group in a discussion about the behaviors that will impede group decision making; behaviors like villainizing others’ views, arguing without listening, etc. Having made this list, I would say something like, “Trust me—all of these are likely to happen in the next few hours. And that is okay. That is normal!”

2. Ask for permission. Coaching feels less provocative when it has been invited. Following your attempt to normalize mistakes, ask for permission to offer real-time coaching. For example, you could ask the group, “What would you like me to do when these behaviors happen—as they inevitably will?” Or, “May I have your permission to gently stop the discussion and offer coaching to you personally if it looks like you could use it?” I would then ask for a positive confirmation from each participant. People are less prone to defensiveness if feedback is given on their own terms. Research on perception of pain shows that if a patient chooses the timing of it, they perceive it as less painful than if it comes suddenly and unannounced. If this is true of physical pain, it is even more so of psychic pain.

3. Start small and soon. Finally, establish the norm of offering feedback quickly in your facilitation. Doing so lets the group know feedback is healthy and normal, not menacing and rare. It’s likely the woman in your group felt more offended because she was the only person called out—so the call out seemed intrusive. With all this said, defensiveness is a choice. You cannot keep people from making a choice to take things personally. Some people carry so much shame with them that even the most skillful facilitator can’t bypass their proclivity to personalize. However, you can make it easier on them if you’ll use these simple tools.

Good luck!
Joseph

Crucial Conversations QA

Being At Odds with Your Spouse

Dear Emily,

Much of what is taught about crucial skills seems to work if both people have similar mindsets toward certain principles in life. But when two people are at odds, how can there be any resolution? My wife and I are not retired, but as we have been discussing how to allocate our retirement money, my wife is all for spending it soon. She has no interest in delaying enjoying the money now. She’s also convinced that she will not live to be the average age (she has no real health issues that would lead me to conclude that she will have anything less than a full life). I’m of the opinion that I don’t want to wake up when I am eighty-five and find that there is nothing left and I need to work. We cannot resolve this in any rational way and the emotional means are taking its toll on our relationship. Am I correct to say that crucial skills only work for some people?

Regards,
At Loose Ends

Dear At Loose Ends,

“When two people are at odds, how can there be any resolution?” What a powerful, heartfelt question. As I read it, I thought of all the emotion, heartache, and heaviness contained in those three small words: taking its toll. I thought of the relationships that matter most to me and the dark times when I have been at odds with those I love. I felt a small measure of the pain that is often masked by frustration at these times. Thank you for your honest expression of doubt. Just how much can crucial skills really do? Just how far can they really take us? Just how much can they really heal our relationships?

My answer: as much as we will let them. Crucial skills can do as much, take us as far, and heal our relationships as much as we will let them. It’s not the skills that limit us. We limit ourselves.

Now, lest I sound naïve, I don’t want to imply that crucial skills are the panacea for all disagreement, despair, and destruction in our world. They are not. But I do know that far more often than not, it is not our lack of skill that precludes us from achieving resolution and results, it is our lack of heart. Allow me to share a brief example and then I will come back to your particular situation.

Several weeks ago, my friend, and fellow Master Trainer Justin Hale, shared with me a beautiful example of the power of crucial skills paired with an open heart. A trainer in one of his classes shared his experience with crucial skills. This man had first gone through Crucial Conversations before it was even Crucial Conversations! More than a decade ago, he had attended what was then called Path of Dialogue. There he had learned the timeless principles of starting with heart, creating safety, and sharing his meaning. He had put those skills to work in his own life. And yet, despite many successes with his crucial skills, he remained estranged from his family.

You see, this young man had been raised in a very conservative, Christian tradition and his family had not accepted him as the gay man that he is. For many years, their contact had been strained, pained, and minimal. Hearts on both sides of the relationship ached. This issue struck at the very core of who these people thought they were, what they valued most, and the principles on which they based their lives. It doesn’t get much deeper than that.

Finally the time came in which this man, this trainer of dialogue and crucial skills, knew that he wanted to heal his relationship with his family. So, with a tender, open, and I am sure aching heart, he reached out in love and skill to his brother. His efforts resulted in a conversation which literally took hours. Think about that. A conversation which took hours. A conversation which ripped at each brother’s heart. A conversation of pain and grief. This is a crucial conversation. It didn’t get resolved with a simple formula of STATEing my path and exploring yours, tossing in a contrasting statement here and there. It lasted hours and hours because two men wouldn’t give up—on the conversation or each other.

And in the end, this time, they found their way back to one another. They found a way to let brotherhood be more important than the forces keeping them apart. They found their way because they were able to talk and listen and hear.

Now, what I don’t want you to hear in this example is that you aren’t trying hard enough with your wife or that your heart isn’t good enough. That is not my message at all. My message is that extraordinary things can be accomplished with crucial skills. It is not that the use of crucial skills always accomplishes extraordinary things.

Crucial conversations are always easier when there is already a clear and easily defined Mutual Purpose. So, yes, of course it is easier to have crucial conversations with people of like mindset. But, if the skills only work when two people already agree or already share Mutual Purpose, then they would not have helped this man and his brother.

So, what does this mean for you and your wife? It means there is hope. It also means there is hard work still ahead. Here is the place I would suggest you start: you need to step out of the content and rebuild safety by establishing a Mutual Purpose. What does it mean to step out of the content? It means you must stop talking about allocating your retirement money. That’s right. The way to discuss this thorny issue of retirement money is to stop talking about it. Not forever. Just as long as it takes you to find Mutual Purpose. Think about it this way: if talking about allocation of retirement money is causing defensiveness and lack of safety, why would continuing to talk about retirement money help you rebuild safety?

So, now that you have stopped talking about retirement money, what do you do? You first commit to finding a Mutual Purpose and you do it out loud. Don’t just think it. Say it. And aim high. “I want to find a solution that doesn’t just work for both of us. I want to find a solution that strengthens us, builds us, and helps us love each other more. I want to find a way through this conversation that makes our relationship stronger than when we started.”

Once you have committed to finding Mutual Purpose, commit to understanding her purpose. That’s right. Start by listening—really listening. You’ll get your chance to share your purpose, thoughts, feelings, and fears. You will. And, I promise that if you commit to hearing her perspective first, you will build safety in new and profound ways. In fact, sometimes when Mutual Purpose is hardest to find, listening to the other person is the best Mutual Purpose to have. What does that mean? It means that in a conversation, your wife’s purpose is to be heard, and to have you listen and understand. So, if your purpose in the conversation is to hear her, to listen and to understand (not necessarily agree, but simply understand and affirm), then that is a Mutual Purpose right there. And that can often be all you need to get started.

Best of Luck,
Emily

Crucial Conversations QA

Repairing Relationships with Your Children

Dear Joseph,

I am a single parent with seventeen- and twenty-year-old sons. Over the years, I have, unintentionally and regrettably, shouted quite loudly at my children when they have misbehaved. My twenty-year-old hasn’t seemed to be bothered, but my seventeen-year-old has become emotionally very distant. He has hinted that it is because I always end up lecturing and shouting and he’s had enough. He said he also feels very controlled by me and I’m not giving him trust or freedom to grow. I feel so bad and want to resolve this. What can I do to mend our relationship?

Signed,
Hope for Healing

Dear Hope for Healing,

For those listening in to our conversation, let me be clear that I do not condone yelling at children. It is abusive. It can inhibit children’s ability to connect with themselves and others.

Now, to my correspondent, let me honor you for owning this. Having made many mistakes as a parent when things were stressful in my two-parent family, I have enormous sympathy for those who make them when dealing with all that stress alone. You deserve to be acknowledged for the loyalty you have shown your children by hanging in there, for the sacrifices you’ve made in their upbringing, and for the humility you’re demonstrating by owning up to the problem you’ve contributed to.

Here are some suggestions as you prepare for this conversation.

1. “Not bothered” isn’t “not affected.” First of all, I would not assume that your twenty-year-old’s appearance of being unaffected means he was unaffected. Everything I offer below should be considered for that child as well.

2. Acknowledge, listen, and commit. Your central challenge is to rebuild trust. If your behavior has harmed them, the only way to rebuild trust is to draw a line between the past and the future with a punctuated conversation. Specifically, one that helps them see those two time periods as separate and exercise hope that change is possible.

a. Begin this conversation by acknowledging and owning your past pattern of responding aggressively. Don’t do it in a summary fashion to preserve your dignity or authority. Own it. Describe specific instances and the full extent of the pattern. Your twenty-year-old may try to cover it up for you or encourage you to minimize it—but don’t let him do it. Ask for a moment to lay out the history in the way you think it should be done.

b. Then, invite your sons to share how your past behavior has affected them. They may respond differently. The twenty-year-old may suggest it was no big deal. The seventeen-year-old may turn it into an opportunity to blame you for more than you deserve. In either case, listen. Use the AMPP skills from Crucial Conversations. If one or the other does not share much, let him know the door is always open as he reflects on this issue in the future and gains new introspective insight.

c. Next, make a commitment for how you will handle emotionally triggering situations in the future. Be clear and specific. For example, “If I am feeling upset, I will take a time out rather than risk aiming my emotion at you.” If you do a good job in this conversation, they will become attentive to evidence of change in you. It will be crucial that you generate new evidence for them soon—or you’ll lose this fragile window of hope.

3. Do periodic check-ins. At least monthly, take one of your children to lunch or dinner and include the question, “Can you give me some feedback about the new changes I’m making?” Listen to all feedback. If you’ve made mistakes, own them. If they think you’ve made mistakes but you disagree—listen anyway. The content of what you hear is important. Even more important is the evidence you are creating that you can listen.

4. Seventeen has its own rules. Some would tell you that your seventeen-year-old being distant and accusatory is redundant. Those behaviors are part of being seventeen. I agree. Part of what seventeen-year-olds have to do is separate from parental influence in order to form their own identity. At times, it’s not a pretty process. At least—unlike some species—they don’t turn on you and eat you. Although sometimes it might feel like that. As you own what you need to from the past, don’t assume that your efforts will produce some immediate result in “reforming” the behavior of your teen. You aren’t doing it to fix him—you’re doing it to fix you. Let him take responsibility for his own growth process and let the process take the time it needs.

5. Minimal boundaries and maximum validation. Your seventeen-year-old is giving you feedback about lecturing, shouting, and controlling. Listen to that. Take a look at it. Are you holding boundaries appropriate to a seventeen-year-old who is about to step into full adulthood? Or, are you retaining some that are more appropriate to a younger child? Show him you’re willing to negotiate within reason. Even when you disagree—listen deeply and validate fully the emotions, resentments, and frustrations expressed. There is hope for healing. You can change. The relationship can improve. It may take time. Let it. Don’t impose your needs on your child’s freedom. If you surrender your wish to control progress, you gain immediate peace. Intimacy cannot be coerced—only earned.

Warmly,
Joseph