Dear Crucial Skills,
I frequently find myself in Crucial Conversations with someone who is disrespectful and demeaning towards me. I have tried the strategy of apologizing for any wrongs I may have committed, but this person is only willing to talk if I take full responsibility for every wrong they feel I’ve committed and then do things exactly their way. This seems unfair. What can I do?
Based on the information you’ve provided, I can interpret your situation in two ways: either this person is trying to hold you accountable (and failing), or they’re trying to manipulate you (and succeeding).
Because I don’t know the truth of your situation, I will share tips to help you respond in either case.
First, let’s assume things are as you say and this person is “demeaning,” “disrespectful,” and will only talk with you if you agree to “do things exactly their way.”
As you now know, acquiescing to demands is no sustainable way to resolve disagreement. You might avoid contention in the moment, but long term the relationship will suffer, and any results that depend on your cooperation will also suffer.
My first suggestion is don’t apologize if you don’t believe you’ve done wrong. Instead, have a conversation about facts.
A fact is observable—a truth about events as opposed to our interpretation of them. In your case, a “wrong” suggests there is a standard or expectation of behavior, which would be a fact. And there’s your actual behavior that supposedly didn’t meet the standard, which would also be a fact.
Next time this person asks you to take responsibility for some wrong and you believe you’ve done no wrong, start with facts.
For example, “Last month we agreed that I would compile all weekly reports and then send them to you on the last day of the month. Now you say you’re upset because you haven’t seen the reports on a weekly basis. How do you remember our last conversation?”
Perhaps the facts related to your situation are a little harder to delineate—perhaps they involve attitudes and words rather than policies and actions. Perhaps this is a marital partner or friend, not a work peer. Nonetheless, try to isolate precisely what this person expects and precisely how they believe you didn’t meet this expectation.
Make it clear you intend to stick to these facts. “Just so we’re clear, you expect me to do such-and-such. If in the future you think I haven’t met this expectation, I will expect you to cite evidence of how. That way we won’t get lost in misunderstanding. Does that seem reasonable to you?”
As you clarify expectations, you may discover you’re unwilling or unable to meet some of them. If so, don’t pretend otherwise. Try to find a mutually acceptable alternative. “I understand why you want me to do that, but I can’t agree to that and here’s why. However, I am willing and able to do this, and I think this will satisfy both our wants. What do you think?”
These Crucial Conversations skills should help you express your viewpoint rather than withhold it. You may struggle a bit at first, and this other person may be taken back by your frankness. If you meet resistance, stay respectful. And should this person try to avoid a discussion of facts, make that the topic of conversation. We have several articles here about discussing patterns of behavior.
But what if this person is merely trying to hold you accountable?
My suggestion is the same: start with facts.
Whenever we act irresponsibly or behave poorly and someone tries to hold us accountable, we tend to get defensive. In our defensiveness, we concoct all kinds of stories that paint the other person as villain and ourselves as victim.
Some of the wording in your question leads me to believe this is a plausible explanation for your situation. For example, you said you tried the “strategy of apologizing.” Perhaps that’s simply a poor choice of words, but if you meant what you said, I’m concerned that you see an apology as a strategy.
In other words, perhaps this person is demanding you take “full responsibility,” as you say, because so far you haven’t.
How can you know? Look in the mirror. Do you feel disgust or distrust when interacting with this person? Do you raise your voice? Do you feel like a victim? Is there anything you might have done to give this person cause to demand responsibility?
It is said that “The truth is hard to swallow,” and it may be you are struggling to hear what this person has to say.
It is also said “The truth shall set you free.” So, again, focus on facts. The demand for responsibility may be feedback. Don’t dismiss it because it’s difficult to embrace. This person may have perspective that can help you become a better version of yourself.
“Do you mind if we start over? Perhaps I haven’t been hearing you. I’m willing to take responsibility for the things I’ve done wrong, and it would help me to review the facts of the situation. I think it’s essential if I’m to improve and not make similar mistakes in the future.”
If you learn during a conversation that you did, in fact, fail to meet a clear expectation, apologize sincerely and quickly. Acknowledge the misdeed and specify what you will do to prevent it from happening in the future.
Finally, since we have talked so much about facts, I’d like to share one with you: While we are all connected in ways, it remains a psychological fact that I am me and you are you. Most of our interpersonal conflicts result from failing to respect where “I” end and “You” begin.
We often behave as though others are extensions of ourselves, employing various tactics to get them to behave as we wish they would—demands, threats, putdowns, sarcasm, silence, and so on. Sometimes we do this overtly, but usually we are subtle about it. And should we give in to manipulation, we’re prone to resentment and ineffective backlash. The relationship result is a muddled mixture of codependence.
Paradoxically, it is only through recognizing and respecting each other as separate, individual, autonomous human beings that we can create effective and meaningful connections.
I hope these suggestions help you better respect yourself and your boundaries—and others’—so you can connect and communicate more effectively.