Joseph Grenny is coauthor of four New York Times bestsellers, Change Anything, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Confrontations, and Influencer.
Dear Crucial Skills,
My life partner recently got into trouble with the law. He has been charged, and is currently awaiting trial. Luckily, he doesn’t have to await trial behind bars. The problem is, I can see that he is starting some of the same activities that put him in trouble to begin with, and I’m not sure how to tell him about the bad choices he is making.
Since he has been charged with this crime, I have tried to be as supportive as possible. I try to offer advice and suggestions but I don’t want to push too much. He is a very strong willed, opinionated person and whenever I try to approach the topic of the poor choices he is making with his behavior, he immediately becomes defensive and raises his voice. Even when I try to assure him my intentions are to help him avoid being put behind bars for a very long time, it still becomes a shouting match.
How do you hold a crucial conversation with someone who immediately turns to becoming defensive, and refuses to accept the idea that he might not be making the right choices?
Dear Bailed Out,
You are facing one of the toughest interpersonal challenges I can imagine. The challenge of holding a crucial confrontation with someone who is caught up in self-destructive behavior is always daunting. When it is your life partner, the added emotional complexity can often blind you to the right approach.
My advice to you will come in increasing order of personal challenge. And yet my personal belief is it will come in increasing order of value. The final piece of advice I believe to be both the most challenging to practice and the most important to use.
First, you must ensure you are holding the right conversation. In general, I would suggest that if a person’s defensiveness is getting in the way of resolving a specific problem (i.e., his illegal behavior), you should cease talking about the illegal behavior until you can come to agreement about how the two of you will behave during your conversations about tough issues. This isn’t easy. It draws on all the skills we describe in “Crucial Confrontations.” But it is the first thing you need to address. If and when you succeed in coming to such an agreement, you must be vigilant about holding each other accountable when one of you breaks the agreement. Do so with safety. But do so consistently.
Second, and far more importantly, the defensiveness issue is relatively trivial right now. You have a far more important conversation you must hold–and that is one about your relationship. And the first conversation you must hold is with yourself. If you find yourself having the same conversation over and over again with someone else, it is often because there is a conversation you are avoiding with yourself. If your loved one is repeatedly involved in illegal behavior and is not motivated enough by natural legal consequences to reform, then you have a tough decision to make. He has already demonstrated to you that he will continue to make these choices. You have already registered your disapproval of the choices. That conversation is over. The new conversation is about whether you are willing to continue the relationship in spite of this behavior.
Now stay with me here. I am not trying to say that you should always leave this person. What I am saying is that you should not stay with him while pretending you don’t know he is committed to his current lifestyle. If you do you simply burn up the goodwill in your relationship by trying to nag him out of it. He has made his choice. Now you must make yours. Are you willing to continue your relationship even in the apparently likely circumstance that this behavior will continue–forever? If not, then you have a conversation you must hold with him. If so, then stop repeating to him things he already knows and has chosen to ignore.
Finally, let’s talk about the conversation with him. Coincidentally, it is about the relationship–but for different reasons. In this conversation you must think about the best way to influence him. Let’s talk about the most fundamental principle for influencing others.
The biggest influence challenge you face is that your loved one is immature. The essence of maturity is the ability to subordinate a short-term value to a longer-term one. In a very important sense your life partner lacks this capacity. So what is your responsibility to him if you love him? If this behavior is truly self-destructive (e.g., serious drug abuse) and not trivial (e.g., serial parking ticket violations), then you must ask yourself if your continued relationship is actually insulating him from the full range of natural consequences that might induce him to reconsider his values.
People do what they do because of the consequences they anticipate will follow their actions. And when those who love someone protect them from some portion of those consequences, they become unwitting accomplices in the bad behavior. How might you be protecting him? By continuing the relationship. When someone behaves badly the natural consequences include legal, financial and social losses. He’s clearly going to experience legal and financial consequences. And if those around him protect him from the social consequences by continuing the same kind of relationship with him he’d have were he not engaged in this behavior, he is less likely to change. Your challenge might not be that you lack influence. It might be that you are exerting influence that is keeping him stuck in his behavior.
The most important–and most difficult–piece of advice I offer you is to consider the natural consequences of your continued relationship with him on his behavior. Will the continuance of this relationship lead to more reflection and growth? Or will it perpetuate the very thing that is hurting your life partner?
You have my prayers and best wishes as you make this all important judgment.