Crucial Skills®

A Blog by Crucial Learning

Crucial Conversations for Mastering Dialogue

Helping a Grieving Brother

Kerry Patterson is the author of the New York Times bestsellers, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Confrontations, and Influencer.Kerry Patterson is author of three bestselling books, Influencer, Crucial Conversations, and Crucial Confrontations.

Crucial Conversations

Q  Dear Crucial Skills,

My brother’s wife died suddenly and unexpectedly almost three years ago, twenty-one days before their thirtieth wedding anniversary. She was only fifty-two years old. Since that time, my brother has withdrawn deeply into himself and lives in the emotional pain of her death and his loss. He goes to work every day, but is a shell of his former self. He saw a grief counselor for several months after her death, but now speaks to no one about his lingering pain. What can I do to broach the subject with him, to let him know that I care for him and love him, and that talking about this matter may help?

Concerned Sibling

A  Dear Concerned,

I’m so sorry to hear of your family’s loss and of your brother’s continued sorrow. How he must have loved his wife to grieve her passing so passionately. I also understand why you’re concerned about his lingering pain and apparent unwillingness to talk about it. He’s lucky to have such a sensitive and caring sibling.

You’re right to give the topic some thought. Getting others to talk about serious topics—when you’re the one who wants them to open up—always presents a problem. The other person could easily interpret your actions as meddling and become resentful. Or, they might simply feel you’re well intended but wish you’d leave them alone. Either way, the conversation can quickly head south and never recover.

So let’s start with a diagnosis. Why do people choose to clam up when speaking up would solve so many problems? In this case, the undiscussed subject is the loss of a loved one, but it could be about anything.

For instance, after I give a presentation on the topic of Crucial Conversations, people often approach me and ask: “How can I get my life partner to talk to me? I understand how the skills you shared might work once a conversation starts flowing, but my partner never wants to talk about anything.”

Let me address the broader issue of talking face-to-face about meaningful topics in general, and then I’ll return to your specific question.

Here’s my generic diagnosis of why people won’t hold certain conversations. They don’t think it will bring them much benefit. In fact, they fear the costs will exceed the benefits. So, it is better to clam up and live with the current problems than to open up and maybe unlock Pandora’s Box. It’s a simple enough theory. People seek pleasure and avoid pain, and they figure talking will probably bring them pain.

I’m reminded of a civic leader who approached me a couple years back about an upcoming community meeting. He was upset at the previous attendance levels and wanted to know what he could do to get people to show up at the important event. At first, the fellow wanted to use his position of power to threaten folks. Next he wanted to frighten them with horror stories about the impending doom they would surely suffer if they continued to remain apathetic about the meeting.

So I asked him: “Have you thought about the meeting itself?” I had been to a couple and then, like most of my neighbors, stopped going because the meetings were slow-paced, boring, and appeared irrelevant.

“What are you getting at?” the leader asked.

“Perhaps people would be more likely to go if they got more out of the meetings. Maybe if they enjoyed the experience, they’d be willing to give you more of their precious time.”

After a brief discussion, the leader left with a resolve to make the meetings something people wanted to attend.

So now, when people approach me about a spouse or partner who doesn’t like to do much more than grunt and point, I ask: “What, exactly, do you want to talk about?”

“Well, you know, important stuff,” they explain.

“What kind of important stuff?”

“Problems we need to solve.”

After I prod them further, it usually becomes clear that they want to talk to their partner about what he or she is currently doing wrong and why he or she needs to change. As I’d listen to their description of what their partner is doing wrong, I couldn’t blame them for wanting to talk about and resolve the issues. However, I could also understand why the partner was doing everything he or she could to avoid the discussion.

“So, you’ve tried to talk about the issue, but the conversation failed, and now you’re to the point where you don’t talk much at all.”

“That about sums it up.”

After hearing dozens of similar descriptions, I’ve begun to wonder if a less direct approach might be the better solution to getting people to open up. Prior to this insight, my usual suggestions advised people to talk with the silent party about his or her pattern of avoidance—clearly, openly, and directly. I’d suggest starting the conversation by making it safe. I’d have them explain that they’d like to talk about a problem they see—and resolve it in a way that meets both of their needs. I’d warn people about entering the conversation with the assumption that they were right and others were wrong. I’d encourage them to be curious, not judgmental, to describe the issue (facts not conclusions), and to ask the other person if he or she experienced the problem in the same way. I’d then advise people to let the other person talk.

Previously, I believed that if you followed these skills, you would start the conversation on the right foot. While this advice still holds true, I now think that with long-standing silence and a history of broaching a lot of problems, it is best to first set a goal of having enjoyable, non-threatening conversations—about anything—before bringing up headier issues.

Find a way to regularly talk about things the other person cares about. Next, move to serious but non-confrontational topics. Get to the point where you routinely hold pleasant conversations. Once you’re talking regularly, you can broach more testy subjects by following the steps I just suggested. But first, make conversations safe by not restricting every single interaction to a serious problem-solving discussion.

Now, with regards to your grieving brother, obviously you haven’t been continually trying to get him to open up nor are you constantly talking about problems with him. But the idea of making the conversation safe and pleasant for him certainly applies here. Perhaps your brother fears bringing up the issue will only aggravate the problem. And maybe this has been his experience.

So find time to talk with your brother in general (preferably face to face if he lives nearby, but at least by phone). Be his friend and confidant. Increase the time you spend together. Let the transition from pleasant, smalltalk to more serious topics happen naturally. With time, you might want to start talking about your sister-in-law. Share a pleasant memory or two. Read your brother’s cues. Don’t push the topic if he becomes too uncomfortable. Demonstrate that you can share lovely memories without it turning painful.

Eventually you may want to follow the more direct steps I outlined above. But start by simply being there for your brother and modeling a healthy approach to discussing your sister-in-law’s memory. This alone may help him get to the point where he can talk.


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12 thoughts on “Helping a Grieving Brother”

  1. Jan Cohen

    I would like to relate a story. 1935, Dorothy Tecotsky died in her teens from lukemia. Her mother, Ruth, also died. Not physically, but mentally and emotionally. (Her son came back alive and uninjured from WWII, and all Ruth could say was “My Dorothy should be here”.) Skip ahead to 1948. The extended family of the Tecotsky’s decided to set up a family club, so that cousins could continue to know one another, as families expanded and moved to different neighborhoods or cities, with the idea that they would have monthly meetings at one another’s homes. Someone suggested that they should make it a worthwhile club, giving to charities. “And we should call it the Dorothy Tecotsky Cousins Club and give to leukemia research”. When Ruth heard that, she was born again. She pulled out of her shell and became the person she was before her daughter died. Now, 75 years after Dorothy died, there are only 2 people alive who knew her. But the Cousin’s club is still going strong at 62, with 2nd and third generation cousins still meeting monthly, still contributing in Dorothy’s name to leukemia research.
    My neighbor said that a person dies not once, but twice. Once when they physically die, and a second time when no one remembers them. Dorothy Tecotsky is still alive today, because people remember her.
    Maybe the family could start something like a family club for this grieving soul, maybe it will enable him to be reborn, like Dorothy’s mom.

    (The names are real, the club exists. My Mom is one of the 2 people who knew Dorothy. She and the other older cousin (in her 90’s) are still active members of the club. Financially, it is not a large club, there is no million dollar foundation behind it. They give approx. $1000 per year to the leukemia foundation)

  2. Becky

    This is wonderful advice, Kerry. It’s right on par with what I’ve been doing in my relationship with my adult daughter – laying a renewed foundation of trust and friendship so I could address some issues one by one from a stronger platform. It’s been working beautifully. So far, I have broached one of the issues with very good results. I’m continuing the “laying the foundation” process, and will be able to tackle the next issue when the opportunity naturally presents itself.

  3. Judy Nelson, JD, MSW.

    Dear Kerry,
    Another excellent post. I’m so glad you changed your mind on this one. It is far easier for some in the situation you describe to say nothing, then to risk the inevitable lecture or harang. Being there for the other person and offering the positives of relationship, may even result in the desirable changes without the need for anything else.

  4. Luis Rovira

    At the risk of not being read, I will make a religious comment.
    The loss of a loved one, like the article says, cannot be reversed, and I agree with the fact that most human beins avoid painful situations and talking about their loss would be one of those situations.
    No words from anyone can really heal that wound, it may console for a brief moment, but only to return.
    However, the healing process has to come from ones inner feelings. The persons faith. The believe that one has to die in order to be reborn, Reborn to another life, for us Catholics it’s Jesus, for Muslims Mohamed jews God etc.
    When you have that inner peace it’s when the healing process begins.

    If this grieving person was guided back to their religios beliefs no matter what they may be. (other than atheist)
    I think would be very beneficial.

  5. Barbara

    We often do not speak about the deceased, in order to avoid hurting the survivors. Believe me, they are glad to know that their loved one has not been forgotten. The concerned sib may find it more productive and real if s/he would remember his wife’s birthday and their anniversary. Voicing a rememberance of her or of the couple may go farther than expected to open communication.

  6. Colleen Cumby

    This is excellent advice. Several years ago, I lost someone I loved. I too clammed up. It wasn’t because I didn’t want to talk about it, but rather it was because there were no words to express what I was feeling. The words themselves were inadequate. Grief is a funny thing. I had a pain in my chest that lasted two years. I went to the doctor and there was nothing wrong with my heart– except of course, that it was broken. Instead of talking, I kept going through the motions of living. My attempts to do that made me try things that I’d never tried before — teaching, cattle herding, yoga. I’m sure all of this was surprising and difficult for my loved ones.

    It was in a yoga class that I received the greatest comfort. We were doing partner work that required that we lean against each other’s backs — just that human connection — the simple warmth of the casual contact of another human body, helped begin the healing process. I eventually did talk about it with a couple of very close friends — when I was ready.

    The problem with grief is that the memories are everywhere, and it takes time to recover. I ran into a friend of mine who had lost his life partner. Four years later, he was in a new and very positive relationship. He confessed to me that he still had spasms of grief for his lost loved one, even though his life is good now. I know that’s true for me — there are still spasms of grief, but my life has gone on and has opened up in surprising ways because of the risks I was willing to take while I walked that road.

    I’m grateful for those who walked silently beside me during that difficult time, and I’m grateful for the life I have now — there are times when patience, kindness, and a willingness to simply be present are all we can do for those we love.

  7. Thoi Pham

    Dear Sibling,

    Please check out the website or the book for “Being There for Someone in Grief” by Marianna Cacciatore. SALT: See your brother without trying to fix him, Allow him freedom to feel his pain in his own way, in his own time, Listen, just listen, and Trust that he has everything he needs within to heal himself–with your Deep Presence.

    Thanks, Thoi

  8. Chris

    Nice one Kerry.
    The whole creating safety piece has become an invaluable lesson I learned when I took the Crucial Conversations course. I’ve realized that sometimes the direct approach, no matter how low key, can still be received/perceived as a threat. (And no matter what my intentions, I might not come across as I wish) It is the relationship foundation that provides the strength and support to have the really difficult conversations. It has made a huge difference in my life-partner relationship and I’m grateful for the insight.
    Although I never figured out that it was what I needed to do in my relationships, I also know that it was a key part of a therapy for parents who were working with children who had been labelled as “oppositional”. There were a number of very effective strategies fo changing the way parents responded to their children, but before implementing any of them, the therapy called for about a half hour of unconditional love from the parent to the child, consistently every day for a month. It could be a walk, doing an activity like drawing, or watching TV, but something they both enjoyed, and for no other purpose than having a good time together, and showing that the parent wanted to be with and loved the child. I now understand better why that was so important, and why it helped the therapy to work so well. Cheers

  9. Christina Medvescek

    Your recommended approach is compassion in action. First, just be present. There is so much power in this simple action, yet it can be so hard for people to do if they’re feeling awkward or upset themselves. Your advice is excellent. I’m so glad whenever your column shows up in my inbox. onward! chris

  10. Rob McTague

    Have you suggested NLP? The technique is simple and very effective and a Master Practioner should be able to assist with only 1 or 2 sessions.

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  12. Brian Taylor

    It’s a good point you make about making conversations the norm, Kerry. Years ago, I was working for a company with the executive offices one floor above the main office. It became common knowledge that the only time the CEO ventured downstairs was when there was a problem or serious
    issue he wanted to address. So, everytime the CEO came into view it was like an early warning beacon and everyone’s defences were automatically triggered. Even with Crucial Conversation skills this kind of pattern maximises the difficulty of getting others involved and achieving a positive outcome.

    Brian Taylor
    Managing Director
    Vital Smarts USA Certified
    Phone: 612 9953 4545

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