Crucial Skills®

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Crucial Conversations for Mastering Dialogue

Can You Have a Crucial Conversation with Someone Who Doesn’t Want To?

Dear Crucial Skills,

My puppy was brutally attacked by our neighbor’s pit bull.

My pup survived, but I soon learned from other neighbors that this was the fifth attack in the neighborhood by this pit bull. I decided to press charges in hopes of improving neighborhood safety.

This did not make the pit bull’s owner happy. The owner, by the way, is mentally ill—he has PTSD from his military service in Afghanistan. He’s also antisocial and unable to detect social cues about appropriate behavior. He carries a handgun on his waist. He will not even look at me.

The court proceedings included a no-contact order, so I haven’t talked with my neighbor. But recently the case was dismissed. I’d now like to talk with him and resolve the tension, but not sure how to start. How do you have a Crucial Conversation with someone who doesn’t want to? And should you if it might be dangerous?

Nervous Neighbor

Dear Nervous Neighbor,

I’m reminded of what’s often called “unrequited love.”

I recently finished reading a novel in which a young man is hopelessly in love with a woman who has no interest. Not only is she uninterested, she’s in love with someone else. The man makes every effort to convey his feelings, to treat her kindly, but to no avail. His sincerest efforts cannot earn him attention from the woman of his dreams.

Why should I compare your situation to love? Because in both love and strife it takes two to tango. In other words, you need a willing party with which to converse if you hope to resolve conflict.

So, can you get your neighbor to become a willing party? Maybe. But your success will depend less on what you say to him and more on what you say to yourself.

First, check your story. You describe your neighbor as antisocial, unable to detect social cues, and as having PTSD. Perhaps you’ve drawn these conclusions from neighborhood gossip or from your own observations. Regardless, they will color your interaction.

Are there other possible explanations for his behavior, or other ways of thinking about it? Imagine how differently you’d approach someone if you thought of them as introverted rather than antisocial, or as a veteran rather than as someone with PTSD. Small shifts in the stories we tell ourselves can radically alter our behavior.

Second, check your motives. Years ago I started a business with a friend, and within a year we were estranged. I went to the warehouse one day to pick up product and found the locks had been changed. When I tried to call my friend, he wouldn’t answer. A mutual friend had to mediate and settle a dispute between us.

The business partner-friend moved to another state, several months passed. At first I felt victimized and vindicated for all my ill feelings. But in time, and through much reflection, I was able to appreciate why my friend had taken the course of action he had.

One night while out jogging I bumped into him. He was in town and happened to be on my neighbor’s porch visiting. I gathered my thoughts, walked up, apologized, asked for forgiveness, and extended my right hand. I no longer wanted to defend or accuse or debate or question, I wanted to reconcile.

He shook my hand and also apologized. Our exchange lasted sixty seconds, but in that short span a burden was lifted from me, and I gather from him too.

I think if I had had any motive other than to apologize in that moment, the interaction wouldn’t have gone smoothly. What I’m saying is this: motive can make the difference. So, why do you want to talk with your neighbor? Do you want to hold him responsible, explain your decision to press charges, preserve a neighborhood reputation?

I’m not suggesting those are your motives but rather encouraging you to look inward. Your motive will speak louder than the words you say.

Finally, consider letting go. I understand the desire to resolve tension whenever it arises, with whomever it arises. But I’ve also found that most of the interpersonal problems I face are merely problems of perspective. They almost always go away when I let go. In other words, when I stop thinking of the other person as a problem, I no longer experience a problem.

There’s an edict in every book of wisdom I’ve read, and it’s implicit in Crucial Conversations, which says this: Change what you want to when you can, and when you can’t, accept it. That is not a euphemism for acquiescing. It’s a marker of responsibility. Learning to accept those unchangeable aspects of life we’d rather not, including other people, is necessary for personal growth.

It may turn out that you can’t connect with your neighbor. I’ve given you a couple of suggestions that will increase your odds should you try. If they don’t work, you may need to work on accepting things as they are.

I’m very sorry to hear about your puppy, but glad to hear it survived. I hope these suggestions help you find some measure of the peace and resolution you seek.


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13 thoughts on “Can You Have a Crucial Conversation with Someone Who Doesn’t Want To?”

  1. Geoffrey

    Well stated Ryan. Thanks!

  2. Vicky

    Timely advice for our current challenge with a hoarder next door to our businesses who has chased away tenants and customers with his unhealthy habits and refused to rationally resolve it. I’m reframing the story – from HE is a problem to he HAS a problem and we’re looking for mental health professionals to help.

    1. Ryan Trimble

      Good for you, Vicky. Good luck.

  3. C. P.

    I’m a dog trainer who has worked with several vets similar to the person you’re describing. A couple tips I’ve picked up are:
    1. If he has told you he has PTSD, and its not an inference, I would urge you to talk to a professional about how to talk to people with PTSD. It makes a big difference in how to ease the conversation, and it helps with managing conversations in the long term.
    2. Since you have been no-contact, I wouldn’t start out a conversation with him right away. I would go slowly. Start with a hi when you’re both out in your yards, and see how it goes. You may be ready to come to a resolution of the conflict, but he might not be. Reading his signals would be incredibly important for this.
    3. He may not be the right person to have the conversation with initially. Some vets work with assistants to help manage their symptoms in situations like this, and getting their help can be invaluable in easing a situation like this.
    4. Many areas have organizations that help veterans with the cost of behavioral trainers and dog trainers to work with their dogs. If it does go well, offer to help find him one of these. His pup is probably struggling as much as he sounds like he is.

    1. Ryan Trimble

      Thanks for this valuable info, C.P.

  4. Stephani

    Loved this! I honestly started off not going to read it because I figured if they don’t want to talk, I wouldn’t care. Motive definitely affects all crucial conversations that I think of..Thank you!

  5. RPM

    Dear Nervous Neighbor,

    Before addressing your question about talking to your neighbor I want to reassure you that I believe that you did the right thing by pressing charges. A beautiful, seven-year-old girl was killed last year in a neighboring city to me by pit bulls. The two dogs that murdered the little girl had a history of biting but no one reported the incidents until after the news story was released. Had they done so, that little girl would still be alive today. I repeat – YOU DID THE RIGHT THING.

    While I have sympathy for your neighbor’s situation, being a veteran with PTSD does not entitle him to harbor an animal that has repeatedly attacked others.

    I want you to consider yours and his point of view before approaching him:

    First, imagine your dog being the aggressor in this situation with someone else’s pet. How would you have behaved? You would have paid the vet bills, apologized profusely, and done whatever you could to make restitution. If your dog continued to behave this way my guess is that any time it is allowed outside it would always be leashed and muzzled.

    Now imagine yourself as he is. Really imagine this. Your dog is aggressive and has attacked another dog. You do nothing effective to change the situation, refuse to take responsibility, or even apologize. Your dog attacks four more times. You do not pay the vet bills, refuse to muzzle it, refuse to put a shock collar on it, and refuse to apologize when it goes after someone’s pet and terrorizes both the pet and owner in the process.

    Can you really imagine yourself doing that? No. You cannot and refuse to be that person.

    However he IS that person. And hear me: he cannot or refuses to be you. You are not responsible for him or his behavior. You are responsible for protecting yourself, your pets, your family, and I agree – your neighbors (in particular their children). Being a victim of PTSD does not make it okay to victimize others.

    Ryan took a gentle approach to helping you consider that respecting the no-contact order may be the best choice.

    I strongly want you to consider that having a conversation with him, knowing that he allows his pet to do others serious harm, may do neither of you a bit of good and has great potential to make the situation infinitely worse.

    I carry pepper spray in my hand while out walking our dogs. I hope that you and your neighborhood are able to stay safe and wish you health and peace.

    1. Ryan Trimble

      Thanks for sharing this perspective and alternative approach, RPM.

  6. Meryl Bryant

    I have been a crucial conversation certified trainer for over 10 years. I thought Ryan’s response was completely irresponsible. Several years ago when I lived in Carmel California two people were shot to death over a rock in someone’s driveway by their neighbor. Approaching someone who could have severe mental challenges and also carries a gun is a dangerous thing to do no matter what. Psycho educational training is not the same as psychological professional training. Comparing it to unrequited love is ridiculous. I think you incurred a huge liability encouraging this person to try and talk to the neighbor. I’m very disappointed.

  7. Paula M. Kramer

    It seems to me that the best person to talk to the neighbor is another veteran who has experienced PTSD. I have PTSD from a horrific childhood. The first thing I need is to feel safe. I assume the neighbor also needs to feel safe. Perhaps having a dog that attacks other dogs makes him feel safe. I wonder if any organizations for veterans helps with this kind of situation. Another veteran with PTSD could point out better ways to feel safe. Having a dog that attacks other dogs is obviously not the best way to guarantee safety.

    1. Ryan Trimble

      Good insight, Paula. Thanks.

  8. Julie

    Ryan: Thank you for this reminder that ultimately the only thing we can truly control is ourselves, and how we approach any situation, especially those that seem out of our control, can make all the difference.

  9. bean q

    big PLUS 1 from me
    solid advice that’s easy to read (hopefully easy to heed!)

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