Crucial Skills®

A Blog by Crucial Learning

Crucial Conversations for Mastering Dialogue

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?

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,

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

9 thoughts on “Being At Odds with Your Spouse”

  1. Barb Hammer

    Dear Emily,
    This is such powerful wisdom. I was moved by your words and the heart energy behind them. Beautiful.
    Thank you.
    Barb Hammer

    1. Emily Hoffman

      Thanks, Barb!


    Synchronicity and Spirit sent this out today to many of us. Thank you.

  3. Pat Leenerts

    I appreciate “At Loose Ends” heart-felt question. Although the work related articles are real world…there is nothing more real world to me than seeing scenarios through the eyes of marriage. The idea of the initiation of a crucial conversation followed by hearing, both using the “open heart” approach is very powerful. I can see this translating into work and other life aspects. For work, if the person to which you are having the crucial conversation can see that you are not trying to get ahead by damaging, stomping or crawling over them, if they can be brought to the realization that their work attitude is causing harm not only to the company but to them personally…if they can see that you are before them with an open heart, then maybe they can hear with an open heart. It may not be as quick as in the story with the brothers. Yes their hours were quick because of the time being consolidated into a single session. The blood bond of the brothers and their caring for each other when younger, was able to hold them together to get through the whole conversation. Work relationships do not normally have that strong a bond, but with mutual opening of the hearts, who says they can’t.

    1. Emily Hoffman

      Such a powerful insight, Pat. I think we limit the depth and strength of our relationships by categorizing them as work or family or friend or personal relationships. I love the challenge you give us – to make all our relationships what we want them to be, regardless of how we have come into one another’s life. I hope I never say, “oh, she is one of my work friends.”

  4. Marie

    Such a timely subject for many retiring. Thank you for your insight and reminder to listen. It might be a good opportunity for this couple to go to a community college class on financial management and retirement planning together. This would give information that might open up to some important discussions and joint decisions. Thank you for your comments!

  5. m

    Sometimes trust needs to be built before someone will risk speaking their purpose, or even getting real to himself about it… let alone speaking it out loud. I didn’t realize how deeply injured my husband was before we were married. He was so used to being hurt that he projected that onto me constantly – with my slightest slip he imagined trickery, malice, hidden agendas… and now, only after years of not giving up on him, has he learned that I’m not giving up or going away. I have hope for a better future.

  6. Hanne


    It means step away from your individual positions and dive in under the iceberg, find the needs and wants there and common ground (in Emily’s answer a solutions that strengthens, builds and love each other more, or just: growing old together). Really listen to each other to understand. From there think about options and find one you can both feel good about. It really works, there are always options, but yes, it takes work and effort. It’s like love itself: a verb.

    Hanne from Communication Wise

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