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Crucial Conversations for Mastering Dialogue

Adjusting to Your In-Laws’ Communication Style

We’re excited to announce that Steve Willis, a Senior Master Trainer as well the VP of Professional Services at VitalSmarts, will become a regular contributor to the Crucial Skills Newsletter.

Dear Steve,

I’m a newlywed and my in-laws are very involved in our lives; we see them frequently each month. Although I dated my husband for several years before marriage, I never really acclimated to his family’s style of rhetoric. Both of his parents tend to argue and debate everything. It’s difficult for me to have a conversation with them because I know it will result in some sort of argument. My husband doesn’t share this rhetoric style and separates himself by ignoring it or disengaging from conversations, while I get very agitated and stressed by it. I fear I’ll be thought of as rude if I choose to be non-responsive to conversations directed toward me as he does. What is the best way for me to handle this?

Too Passive for This Family

Dear Too Passive,

Thank you for you an excellent question. As it happens, all crucial conversations are not created equal. And it’s not always easy to tell what kind of conversation you’re facing at the outset. If we could scale them, like we do with white-water rapids, most crucial conversations come in right around a class three. They are difficult to navigate, and contain their fair share of holes and eddies that shift the course of the conversations in unpredictable ways. However, the conversation you describe is a class five—if not greater. This is a class of conversation that requires some “scouting” to understand what you’re up against. Otherwise you may find yourself stuck in a recirculating pattern. With this in mind, I’d recommend two ideas: notice and act. Sounds simple, but it’s a little more challenging than you might expect.

Let’s start with notice. One of the biggest benefits participants get from attending a Crucial Conversations Training is learning new ways to look at their existing conversations. You start to notice new elements or aspects of the interaction that you hadn’t previously. I think it’s helpful to realize that the friction here is due to a difference in your value hierarchies. It’s not that you don’t value frank, open, honest communication or that your in-laws don’t value civility and respect. The conflict arises because of where those values sit within your value hierarchies. Neither value set is right or wrong—just different. But therein lies the challenge. It would seem that healthy debate is not as high on your list as it is on theirs.

So now you can view the conversation in a new light. It helps you approach it differently too. Instead of sharing your facts, telling your story, and asking for their paths in regards to whatever happens to be the topic of the day, you begin the conversation aware of your differences in values. Notice will get you to the right starting place within the conversation, but the act part, the part that comes next, will still be somewhat tricky.

Act 1: STATE My Path. The subtitle of this section of training is “How to be persuasive, not abrasive.” While this is useful in describing the power of the STATE skills, it does not fully express their full range of use. In training, we practice the STATE skills on situations where there is a need to hold another person accountable, or check conclusions we’ve drawn about a coworker. In these situations, the person lays out his or her case in order to help the other person appreciate his or her position, all while trying to avoid coming across as someone trying a law case.

So here’s the subtle twist: we are often more persuasive when we provide others with information about us rather than address issues related to them. Meaning, you use STATE differently based on the type of conversation you’re facing. In this situation, where you are dealing with difference in values, you want to use the skills to point out how certain actions are perceived by you as well as how those perceptions impact you.

In conversation, it might sound like, “I’d like to share something with you that you might not know about me. When I see you two talking about things such as (insert one or two of the most recent topics where you’ve experienced the aggressive banter) and hear you represent your opinions with expressions like (insert an example or two) it feels to me that you’re more interested in being right than being inclusive. I realize that you may not be aware of this, so I wanted to share it with you.” Again, the point here is not to convince them of the error of their ways, but rather to help them understand what goes on in your head when you see them start in on a topic.

Act 2: Start with Heart. Some people might recommend creating Mutual Purpose in this situation, but I like to take a step back and focus on a foundational element. How you approach this will make a difference in the outcome. You will want to stay connected to what you really want: an open yet respectful series of interactions without feeling like you have to escalate or walk away completely. I would take the time to write this out and not just make it a mental exercise so that you can be very deliberate about connecting to what you really want.

Last of all, I’ve found it helpful to have this conversation at a different time than when you experience the forceful dialogue. The other person is less defensive and therefore more open to your message. Don’t try to disabuse them of their values. Provide them with information about you, using your best STATE skills, and keep connected to what you really want. Be aware that this may take time, and you may need to re-share a couple of times, but in the end I think you’ll find it easier to interact with your in-laws.

Best of Luck,

You can learn more insights and skills like this in Crucial Conversations for Mastering Dialogue

16 thoughts on “Adjusting to Your In-Laws’ Communication Style”

  1. Darcyb

    Rather than this: “it feels to me that you’re more interested in being right than being inclusive” could it be that they just like the banter? Or to learn from the other? Or, knowing they have different views often, this has become their communication style for exchanging differing opinions?? It seems that your example is actually putting a judgment on their exchange. Just a thought.

    1. Steve W.

      It’s not necessarily bad to share a story which is judgement, as long as you share it tentatively and own it. It’s especially ok if you have drawn the conclusion because what you’re trying to do is give others an insight into how you perceive things.

  2. M Ulander

    It sounds to me as though you are suggesting to the daughter-in-law that she should seek a change in behavior of her parents-in-law in their home. You have stated that there is no right or wrong, just different.
    Why wouldn’t the daughter-in-law try to help her in-laws understand her values and then make an effort to not shut down when the discussion gets too heated for her. If there is an expectation that she participate in a discussion when she feels uncomfortable, couldn’t she just explain that she doesn’t feel comfortable getting involved?

  3. swilson

    The line, “it feels to me that you’re more interested in being right than being inclusive. ” would really heat me up. My husband(of over 25+ years) & I often have very verbose conversations. We tend to talk over, through, etc with each other, but in the general realm of things, that’s just us.
    Don’t be so thin skinned

  4. Steve W.

    For me, this approach accomplishes both purposes. You help them see what’s going on with you (what your values are) in a way that also provides a compelling reason for the in-laws to change. I think it’s also important for a person to work on themselves first, so “focus on what you really want” helps you connect with your best motives–and often helps you weather challenging situations.

  5. Jeff K

    My business partner was placed in this position by me and our accountant, a long term friend of mine. We like nothing more than banter and sending each other up and we have done this for over 35 years. The problem is that it makes my business partner feel really uncomfortable in the same was as the daughter-in-law in this story. She confided in me, I told my accountant friend and we refrain from this behaviour when she is present. The last thing we would want to do is make someone feel uncomfortable about our tom foolery. It is too easy to over think this stuff. If you care about someone and you are making them feel bad, modify your behaviour. Any other time, it is “on again”, in fact I am sure our wives and friends would think there was something wrong if we stopped.

  6. bean q

    steve w.,
    i am LOVING that values hierarchy metaphor. it’s been less and less latent in my own psyche, but would you please point me toward where i can i read more explicitly about it??
    thanks for for your efforts here!

    1. Steve W.

      Not sure what to recommend. I’ll check with David M. to see if he has a recommendation.

      1. Steve W.

        I haven’t heard back from David, but in the mean time you might want to check out Robert Merton’s work on Middle-range theories. He discusses how assumptions, values and other deep meaning affect our interactions.

        1. bean q

          sweeeet! i’m on it…

  7. Bill

    Great counsel Steve! To add to it …

    If I were the daughter-in-law, I’d make sure to talk with my husband about my desire to speak with his parents.. Hopefully we’d be on the same page about how to approach them. If that were not possible, at least he wouldn’t feel blindsided by what may well be a very difficult discussion.


    1. Steve W.

      Glad to hear you found it useful.

  8. Scott

    Growing up my best friends father loved to challenge us in debate, I came to realize he didn’t necessarily support the opinion he put forth, he just wanted us to be able to defend a position. As I entered my early twenties and learned what he was doing I would ask him how he felt about a topic and then either adopt the same argument, or challenge his statements saying I don’t believe you really feel that way, you just want to know how I feel. He was an amazing man who I learned a lot from. Later When my friend got married his wife confided in me that she didn’t enjoy talking to her father in law because of this confrontational (never loud or argumentative) style. I told her how I learned to deal with him. A year or so later she thanked my and told me she now had developed a relationship with him that was extremely close and she now loved talking to him about anything. Healthy discussion & debate can be intellectually stimulating and in some cases bring people together rather that pull them apart.

    1. Steve W.

      It’s so interesting how small shifts such as the one you’re suggesting make a big difference in the outcomes. I find that if I shift some it encourages others to do the same, and we’re more likely to find a good conclusion.

  9. bean q

    isn’t this what crucial skills are supposed to help with??
    i think this is an issue of mastering her story. if indeed she had done so already, she wouldn’t need steve to come in and say her value hierarchy is different; she’d have discovered it on her own …which is why i keep referring to the materials here as part of an emotional education curriculum; they teach one how to first deal with one’s own issues, THEN maximize opportunities for successful communication with whomever.

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