Category Archives: Crucial Conversations

Crucial Conversations QA

Are You Being Passive-Aggressive?

Dear Steve,

I recently took the Crucial Conversations course and learned about the silence-dialogue-violence spectrum. I believe my tendency is to go to silence at work, but violence at home. I’ve wondered why I react differently in these two situations. I speculated that perhaps the reason was that I felt safer at home. However, I recently realized that what may look like silence at work may truly be passive-aggressive behavior. This prompted the following question: Where does passive-aggressive behavior fall on the spectrum? Is it silence or veiled violence?

Earnest Self-Reflection

Dear Earnest,

Some years ago, I happened upon an article in the Money section of USA Today. The section started with an article about former IRS repo men, and, quite frankly, I couldn’t imagine anything being more riveting. I was wrong. There on the next page, appeared a title as if illuminated in neon lights: “When You’re Smiling, Are You Seething Inside?” Hmmm . . . repo men? Or smiling while seething? I think you can guess that I quickly switched articles. What I thought would be an exposé on specific individuals’ behavior turned out to be an exploration of organizational behavior—or, more accurately, collective behavior within organizations. It not only outlined the impact of passive/aggressive culture, but also the industries that were most prone to foster this type of culture. Reading this article started me on a path of thinking about and observing (and on occasion participating in) both individual and collective passive/aggressive behavior patterns. And so, after years of study, I can definitively say that the answer to your question is yes. If that seems confusing, let me explain.

Over the years, I’ve noticed something interesting about the silence-violence continuum. It doesn’t always behave like a true continuum. There are many instances where it is more accurately represented as an arc—and not the altruistic kind like Noah’s or Joan’s. In the case of this arc, silence and violence remain the anchors, but instead of being represented as polar opposites, they bend back toward one another. In many situations they touch, facilitating the surprisingly quick jump from silence to violence or from violence to silence. And so to your question. Passive-aggressive behavior can easily assume the form of veiled violence or silence because it is.

This may seem a little counter-intuitive, but silence and violence are rooted in the same value—fear. And while it might seem easy to make the connection between silence strategies and fear, the fear-to-violence connection wasn’t as easy for me to figure out. Some examples of violence motivated by fear might be: “I’m afraid you won’t agree with me so I have to assert control,” or, “I’m afraid I’ll be seen as less, so I have to go on the attack.” So if we think about silence and violence strategies as different expressions of the same feeling, what used to be well established boundaries start to blur. And sometimes, they blur to the point of not being able to clearly categorize the behavior.

And now, on to a question you didn’t ask but that I feel warrants being part of the discussion. There are two types of passive/aggressive behavior that I see most often as I work with different organizations. They take different forms in different regions of the world. So as you review them, see if you can identify how and where they show up where you live and work.

Sarcasm. This first type is more of an aggressive/passive strategy. It’s one of the most common signs that someone doesn’t feel safe while, at the same time, causing feelings of insecurity in others. Because it’s readily available—and we are surrounded by so many examples—it’s widely used. To be clear, there is such a thing as playful, fun sarcasm. But a lot of what I see in organizations is sarcasm rooted in the origins of the word. Derived from the Greek sarkazein, sarcasm literally means “to strip off the flesh.” Ouch! And in a lame effort to ease the pain of the cut, it’s always followed-up with some version of the old classic, “I’m only kidding! Can’t you take a joke?”

Gossip. This second strategy is more of the tried and true passive/aggressive approach. The idea is that whenever you feel you’re in a weaker position, you launch an assault behind the other person’s back. Never share your concerns, reservations, or controversial perspectives in the moment while talking directly to the other person. Instead, wait until you find an uninvolved third party with absolutely no ability to resolve any of the issues you bring up. Extra bonus points if you can talk to someone who might eventually leak the details of your concerns, without naming who had them, to someone who can do something about it. This version may seem less vicious when compared to the previous example, and yet it’s just as real in its long-term impact on the health of both the relationship and the culture of the organization.

Just to be clear, I don’t dwell on these wedge-driving behaviors for fun. I believe that the sooner we recognize we aren’t in dialogue—especially when we find ourselves on more artful, subtle departures—the faster we can get back to dialogue and the fewer the casualties. I wish you many passive/aggressive-free conversations!

Best of Luck,

Crucial Conversations QA

How to Increase Your Conversational Skills

Dear David,

How do you make and keep friends when you are inept in conversation? I can be in a crowded room, sit in one corner and just people watch because I have nothing to say. Also, if I have an opportunity to go out to places where there will be more than two people, I find every excuse not to go. Sometimes I manage to push myself out the door, but rarely. Any ideas?

A Couch Potato (in front of a computer)

Dear Couch Potato,

I can certainly say, “been there, done that!” I was painfully shy and socially inept well in to my thirties. Some would say I remain pretty socially inept. I guess my own situation explains in part why I chose to dive deeply into the study of psychology.

While in graduate school at Stanford, I volunteered at a Shyness Clinic that Phil Zimbardo was running as a part of his research. He eventually wrote an excellent book, Shyness: What It Is, What To Do About It. I recommend checking it out.

Before I began working with Phil, I had assumed most shyness was due to poor social skills. But it turned out I was wrong. The shy people we studied were actually quite skilled. The problem was they were also harsh self-critics and were extra-sensitive to social rejection. It turns out most of us fumble and stumble our way through social situations; and shy people notice their slip-ups more than the rest of us.

What helped these people the most was to practice conversations, warts and all, until they realized their fumbles weren’t any worse than anyone else’s. Of course, this practice also helped them improve their conversation skills. With that in mind, I’ll suggest a couple of ideas for practice.

Conversational Tennis. This game comes from my dear friend, Al Switzler. I’ve used it myself, and with many of my nieces and nephews. You play it with one or two other people, perhaps on a car trip or during a meal. Here is the setup: The goal is to keep the conversation going. One person begins by serving a topic across the net. The other person’s goal is to respond to the topic in a way that sends it back across the net, and keeps the conversation going. See how long you can keep the topic in the air. After a while, it will be the other person’s turn to serve up his or her own topic.

This game works well to practice keeping conversations alive. I find it’s really fun with teens who are used to responding in monosyllabic grunts and nods. They quickly see what it takes to participate in a conversation.

Topics to Discuss. You can find several websites that suggest conversation starters. And there is some excellent research on how the topics of conversations flow among strangers and friends. The basic finding is that we begin by talking about very broad and noncontroversial topics, such as the weather, traffic, or jobs. These are easy topics for others to hit back across the net. We use them to keep the conversation going while we listen for common interests and other, more personal, connections.

As we begin to feel safer with the person, we reveal more about ourselves. We test how safe and rewarding it is to disclose our interests, our hopes, and our fears. This phase of the conversation is a bit like a dance. Disclose too much too soon, or ask questions that are too personal too soon, and your partner will feel uncomfortable. Keep the conversation on surface topics for too long, and the person will think you don’t want a personal relationship.

The researcher, Arthur Aron, has studied this process in the lab, by giving strangers a series of questions to discuss with each other. The questions begin at a surface level but become increasingly personal over the forty-five minutes of the experiment. Because of the situation, people feel fairly safe with each other. As the questions become more personal, they often find themselves disclosing information they’ve never shared with anyone before. When they see the way their partner reacts to their revelations, they develop trust, liking, and even affection for them. In fact, these questions have developed the reputation as “The 36 Questions to Fall in Love.”

Rules of Improv. Where should you start? I suggest you begin with low-stakes conversations—perhaps with phone calls with family members. I don’t know about you, but I try to call my mom every day. Use conversations like these to test out topics that work for you. In addition, follow the First Rule of Improv: “Always AGREE, and SAY YES!” This rule doesn’t mean you should “agree” or “say yes” to everything your conversational partner says. Instead, it means you should respect what they’ve said, and hit the topic back to them in a way that is safe and easy for them to respond to. The rule is another take on conversational tennis.

I hope these ideas will be helpful. Now turn off your computer and call your mom.

Best Wishes,

Crucial Conversations QA

Manipulating Crucial Skills

Dear Joseph,

My boss is a big fan of yours, but I think he’s misusing his understanding of your material to bully people then patting himself on the back for being a great communicator.

I might approach him and say, “When I said [blank] in that meeting, you cut me off and responded in a tone that sounded sarcastic. I felt that you were not listening to my opinion.”

He’ll respond, “You need to ask yourself how you are perceiving the situation. You need to choose not to get upset. You should look at the situation as an opportunity to communicate. The more you practice, the better you will become.”

How can I approach this with him so that he will at least consider that he might need to change his own behavior?

Not Just About Me

Dear Not Just About Me,

I can feel your frustration. You’ve got a boss who has the solution to his own problem in his hands, but appears to be using it on everyone but himself.

I felt a bit of embarrassment as I read your question because I realized I can be that guy sometimes, too. I think most of us are better at diagnosing others than fixing ourselves. So my advice to you is:

1. Look for the truth.
It seems that your focus is on how he is falling short of what he advocates. Don’t make the mistake of declining truth no matter the messenger. A friend used to say, “Even a hypocrite is useful if for nothing other than a bad example.” Your boss is challenging you to examine your own stories and emotions. If you want to gain the moral authority to ask him to listen to your feedback, first listen to his.

2. Challenge your view. Find a way to critique your own critique of the boss. Find others who might have a different view so you can confirm your criticisms of him aren’t exaggerated or self-serving. Be sure you aren’t taking things personally that others tend to brush-off. Confirm you are not making mountains out of what others think are molehills. Ask them for feedback about you as well so you can put your own house in order before attempting to address his.

3. Offer feedback. If you do a quality job on #1 and #2, you’re ready to talk. Begin by checking to see if he is ready. Acknowledge your concerns, but assure him your goal is dialogue not monologue. For example, “Boss, I’d like a few minutes to share some concerns and to invite your feedback as well. There are some things that are getting in my way. I realize some of them might be about me. Could we schedule some time when I could share my view and listen to yours, too?”

4. Give him a reason to listen. As you ask for this appointment, be sure to offer a Mutual Purpose. Asking, “Can I point out your flaws for fifteen solid minutes?” might not be very motivating to him. So help him frame this as a sincere opportunity to help him get something that is important to him—while also acknowledging its importance to you, too. For example: “After some of our staff meetings, I find myself feeling discouraged and disconnected. I don’t want to bring that to your team. I want to do my best work for you and for our customers. I want to feel 100% engaged in a way that you are thrilled about. That’s what this conversation is about. Can we talk?”

5. Share facts, not judgments. This is the tricky part. I worry from the tone of your question that you’ve got a lot of judgments about your boss. If so, you need to shed them as best you can. Otherwise, they will creep into your tone and word choice. You’ve got to see him as a reasonable, rational, decent person. You must come to see his weaknesses as human not villainous. I don’t mean to suggest you should put up with the weaknesses—just don’t turn him from a human into a villain because of them. As you offer your feedback, be sure to share facts and behaviors not judgments and emotions. For example, don’t say, “You misuse Crucial Conversations principles to bully people.” That’s a judgment. Rather, you might say, “When I try to share concerns about how you handled something in a meeting, you point out what I did wrong. This has happened four times.”

6. If he shows no interest, let it go and make a decision. No matter how scrupulous you are about examining yourself, creating safety, and offering facts, some people won’t listen. If, after making your best attempt, he appears impervious to feedback, you’ve got a choice to make. You must accept that this is who he is likely to be for the foreseeable future. Then you have to decide if you’re quality of life is enough at risk to make a change, or if this is trivial enough that you can cope. If you choose to cope, then acknowledge that you are making a decision to stay. Don’t play the victim by staying and blaming him. From this point forward, it is your choice to accept him as he is. If you can’t, then you have three options: 1. Stay, but find a way to distance yourself from his weaknesses; 2. Stay in the company but change bosses; or 3. Change companies. Some might complain at this advice, thinking, “That’s not fair! Why should his weaknesses mean that I have to change?” The answer is: “Because that’s how life works.” The only thing you can control is yourself. Everything else is about influence. If influence fails, controlling yourself is all you’ve got.

I hope influence works. It will be good for both you and him. And if not, I hope you can find a path to peace that works for you.


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,

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.

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?

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!

Did you enjoy this article? Subscribe to our newsletter to receive more like this in your inbox each week!

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?

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!