Crucial Skills®

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Crucial Conversations for Mastering Dialogue

Caught in the Middle: Conversations Between Stepchild and Parent

Dear Joseph,

I have a stubborn stepson who refuses to speak with his father. He thinks his father doesn’t love him, which is not so. What can I say to him so he’ll open up?

Getting Through

Dear Getting Through,

First, with no background about your stepson’s life, history with dad, or relationship with you, I have no idea what is behind his silence. There could be an infinite number of contributors. Does he struggle with depression or anxiety? What happened with his birth mother? Is there trauma associated with that? Could his silence be related to feelings of inadequacy or fear in his relationship with his father? Does he have developmental or autism spectrum-related challenges? Is he naturally shy?

With all that said, let me share a few principles that you can consider as you try to have a positive influence. I will base my advice on two things you said in your brief question: He is “stubborn” and “refuses to speak with his father.” And “What can I say to him so he’ll open up?”

The inescapable ingredients of relationships are vulnerability, humility, selflessness, self-honesty, time and trust. You’ll note that nothing on that list can be installed by a third party.

His relationship with his dad is not your job. You are asking for something you can say so he’ll open up to his dad. This very question suggests an unhealthy relationship between you, your husband, and your stepson. You are taking responsibility for something that is not your job, but your husband’s job. By taking responsibility for a relationship between two other people, you put yourself in the role of a manipulator. You begin to scheme about covert tactics you might use to cajole others into developing something that is entirely their work. The problem isn’t your stepson’s silence, it is the relationship between a father and a son. And the inescapable ingredients of relationships are vulnerability, humility, selflessness, self-honesty, time and trust. You’ll note that nothing on that list can be installed by a third party. My first bit of advice is for you to get out of the way. Work on your relationship with your husband and your relationship with your stepson. Period. And if, in search of self-honesty, they ever ask you for advice about what they can do to improve their relationship, offer your perspective. But don’t try to steal their problem from them.

Your story may be your (and your husband’s) problem. You have concluded that his silence is about being “stubborn.” That’s a story. You continue that he “refuses to speak with his father.” “Refuse” implies a willful and, coupled with “stubborn,” spiteful motive behind his silence. If that’s the story you and your husband tell yourselves about your son, your reactions to him will be controlled by that story. You’ll find yourself trying to fix him. You’ll feel disgust and judgment rather than patience and curiosity. Of course, I know nothing about their history, so there could be merit to your characterization. But silence is often about more than a character defect. If your husband wants a relationship with his son, all he can do is create conditions that invite him to want to open up. There is nothing he can say to ‘make him’ open up. If your husband is open to some self-examination, he might ask himself:

  • Does my son believe I respect him?
  • Does my son suspect I consider my agenda for him more important than his own agenda for himself?
  • Have I done things in the past that hurt his trust in me?
  • When he has opened up in the past, did he walk away feeling understood, respected and loved?
  • Does he feel safe opening up to me?

No one can get someone to open up to them any more than they can get a kernel of corn to grow into a green healthy stalk. You can’t work on the kernel, you can only work on the soil. You can create a safe and nourishing environment in which the kernel will do what kernels naturally do: open up and grow. If your husband gives careful consideration to these and other questions, he may find things he can do to work on the soil while he patiently waits for his son to trust and engage. Your husband’s capacity for vulnerability, humility, selflessness and self-honesty are the soil. If he cultivates these things along with a willingness to allow the time required for trust to naturally develop, he will have done all he can to have whatever relationship his son is willing to offer.


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

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