Crucial Skills®

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Crucial Conversations for Mastering Dialogue

How to Enjoy a Difficult Relationship

Dear Emily,

I have an older sister who I don’t always see eye-to-eye with. I often find myself getting frustrated with her because of her actions. I know that I have a deeply rooted story about her—that she is very self-centered. I’ve asked myself why a reasonable, rational, person would do what she does and I can always come up with an answer for that scenario. But when I see all of the scenarios as a pattern that has persisted my whole life, I have a really hard time telling another story besides my negative one. I’ve tried talking to her about specific situations and we usually come to common ground but it always happens again. It’s hard to point out the pattern without sounding as if I am keeping a list of her mistakes. She also gets very defensive because she sees it as attacking. I’m not perfect either so have no right to point out her flaws. I want to get along with her and enjoy spending time with her but honestly find dealing with her tedious and exhausting. What can I do?

Best Regards,
Exhausted and Discouraged

Dear Exhausted and Discouraged,

I have an older sister that I don’t always see eye-to-eye with. She is brilliant, informed, dynamic, opinionated, and oh so very different from me. One of the very best parts of our relationship, which is very dear to me, is that we don’t see eye-to-eye. Invariably, when we are together, I learn something new, either about the world or about myself. Either way, her different view of the world is a blessing in my life.

I share that not to say “be like me” or “too bad your sister isn’t as cool as mine.” Instead, I simply want to point out all the baggage that comes with a phrase like “we don’t see eye-to-eye.” When did seeing eye-to-eye become the goal? When did not seeing eye-to-eye become a bad thing, or something to be overcome or worked around? Diversity of opinion, thought, approach, and experience can enrich us if we let it.

As I read your inquiry, I wanted to know more. I wanted all the details of specific things your sister had done so I could judge: is she really self-centered or are you stuck in your own negative story, a story that is blinding you from the reality of who your sister is? I kept thinking about variations of that question: is your story about your sister accurate? And then I realized… it doesn’t matter. You have done exactly what you need to do: you identified your story as a story, you challenged your story, and then you went and discussed your story with your sister. That is more than 99 percent of people out there manage to do.

But you’re still stuck, right? And why? Because crucial conversations don’t solve every problem. Because crucial conversations don’t take away a person’s right to choose how he or she will behave. Your sister, despite your conversations, still gets to choose who she is, who she wants to be, and how she will behave. Your choice is to decide what kind of boundaries you want to put in place, in your life and in your relationships.

Here is a suggestion of how to think about your way forward. It’s a variation on what we teach in Start With Heart that I have found helpful.

Think about your interactions with your sister. Try thinking of a specific interaction that didn’t go well, that was (as you described it) tedious or exhausting. Got it? Okay, now as you are thinking about that interaction, ask yourself: what do you really want? My guess is the first answer is to not be exhausted! Maybe you want peace or enjoyment. You want to be able to laugh and share. You want to feel energized and validated.

Now, next step (and here is where the variation comes in): what do you really want for your sister as she is right now? Sometimes when we simply ask ourselves “what do I really want for the other person?” the answer is all wrapped up in the changes we want him or her to make, the person we want him or her to become. We say things like, “I want her to be less self-centered.” But the key to drawing and maintaining healthy boundaries is to acknowledge who she is right then and ask, what do I want for her, as she is right now, and what do I want for my relationship with her, as she is right now? This doesn’t mean people can’t change and that we can’t have influence. Life is not about being frozen in a specific point in time. It does mean that we need to accept who people are today, where they are today, and then make a decision about what relationship we want to have with them today.

I have found that as I do that, I am able to recognize and enjoy the positive aspects of a current relationship because I can place a boundary between me and the negative aspects of the relationship. This might mean that I don’t do certain things with certain people and it absolutely means that I don’t expect certain things from certain people. Instead, I am able to better enjoy someone for who they are. I let go of the expectations or hopes I had for what our relationship should be or could be, and acknowledge the relationship for what it is.

I may be reading far more into your words than what is there… and yet in them I feel a sense of hurt and loss, that your relationship with your sister isn’t what you want it to be and you are carrying that with you. Chances are you are carrying the weight of that disappointment into every interaction you have with her. So, my suggestion is to lay down the weight, see her as she is, and decide what type of relationship you want to have with her—just as she is today.

Best of Luck,

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

11 thoughts on “How to Enjoy a Difficult Relationship”

  1. Recovering Baby Sister

    Hi, Emily,

    I seriously do not remember sending this post…Oh wait, I didn’t, Exhausted and Discouraged did! Amazing that these sorts of hurtful relationships are not isolated.

    This news article spoke to my soul. I have been dealing with a difficult, dismissive step-sister who CHOOSES to be in deep denial for the past 42 years, as well! And, the sad part is that my sister is a PSYCHOLOGIST! What the What?!

    Emily, your response is so spot on. I too, like E&D confronted my sister and she immediately went into denial. The moment we met she was disgusted because I blurted…”YOU and I look just like sisters!” She spun around and walked away…’and, they’re off’! That was the initial dagger I suppose. I was eight years old, newly (6 mos.) without a mother due to cancer and having been adopted four years prior to her death. Not to mention, I did not look like anyone in my (adoptive) family! So, I immediately fell in love with HER!

    Well, I’m simply too old to keep going around this same mountain. As for processing, I start with heart, I ask myself; What it is that I REALLY want out of this relationship, What is REALLY at stake.

    I want a sister/friend who I can safely share and have fun with. I would love an authentic relationship with her (and her children, for that matter). However, I cannot make anyone treat me the way that “I” want THEM to treat me.

    I have tried my best to accept who she is. I have had to return to that 10 year old in 1973 and think, what did I walk in on? Why’d she reject me before she ever got to know me? What is the rub? What is it that she wants? (feels like she wants to be left alone!) I was not able to unpack all of this as an eight year old.

    Today, what I really want is to fully understand her guard, her annoyance, her resentment of me. What do I need to acknowledge, affirm and ask for forgiveness for? I’m sure that there are a few things that I have said and projected as a CHILD. As I am on a life long quest for self improvement, I’ve acknowledged, processed, dialogued with her and choose my emotional battles. Now I’m simply making new choices to move forward and manage me and my interactions with her.

    I feel I am on the right path by acknowledging what isn’t being said, trusting my intuition, I have opened up dialogue, I have acknowledged my role in any dissonance, I maintain mutual respect, I have shared my story, listened to hers while staying open, I have low expectations of her. She is who she is.

    But the bottom line is, love is my motivating factor…Love is at stake. Today, both of our parents are deceased; however, I still choose to love it out (but from a distance!)

    Thanks, CC for bring this thread to the table!

  2. Susan Morrell

    Great response! I have a similar situation with my sister who as a few years younger than me. I’ll leave out all the details of our lives and how she can drive me and our brother (who is 13 years younger than me) crazy. Suffice it to say, we’ve had some real head-butting confrontations with her. The thing is, about 10 years ago, I came to the realization that we’ll never have the kind of relationship that I see other sisters share and I should stop trying to do so. I wrote her a letter, was very honest and loving and she agreed and accepted it! I still cringe when I see her face come up on my cell phone, but I’ve learned (am still learning) to take a deep breath and decide if I want to deal with her drama then or not. I don’t have to answer the call after all! For me, the stress is less and the little interaction we do have is much better. Superficial maybe, but I’d rather have that than constant bickering and stress. Thanks.

  3. Lydia Lawson

    Thank you for this perspective! I am in a similar situation and by simply reading the words “When did seeing eye-to-eye become the goal?” released me from that unattainable goal I was trying to reach. I now know how to approach my sister differently and this bring me joy!

  4. Carol Galvin

    Thank you for such a refreshing and helpful perspective.
    I am reminded of the beautiful Serenity Prayer.
    I cant and don’t want to go around trying to change others (but boy have I tried). Its not my job plus, it is exhausting, frustrating and I can find no peace. Influence-yes- but change-no. What a great place it is when I am able to accept others exactly as they are and not who I would have them be, so I can be ok. I really appreciate it when others allow me to be who I am without out trying to fix, control or change me. I am learning to extend this same curtesy and respect to others even when we don’t see eye to eye. Easy…no way. Possible…absolutely.

  5. Yvette Pinchback

    This is an amazing response to a very intimate dilemma. I too want this fun, kooky gratifying relationship with my sister. She is so self centered/hurting that I can hardly stand her. Now looking at her from the heart and wanting even a moment of peace for her. Allows me to move forward and not feel like a tyrant of fun. Yes I can now let go of what I wanted and focus on what I can have for both of us. Thank you. Thank you.


  6. clear conscience

    I have 3 sisters, but the one that I have deep conflict with is my twin sister. Despite 45 years of on and off conflict, we’ve maintained a relationship for many years. In recent years the relationship has improved thanks to Crucial Conversations prinicples. I first read Crucial Conversations in 2004 during a book review with my employer. I was amazed and in awe of the book and felt it was the missing link in my life. After learning the concepts and applying them in my life, I facilitated book reviews with multiple teams at work. My manager would also use the principles to further develop my leadership skills and for this I am so grateful. I then started applying the principles during crucial conversations with my family and my sister in our then daily conversations. I can remember my sisters amazement when I first applied the principles and went out on a limb to ask her to “find the shared pool of meaning” or recognize what her agenda was and even sharing how fast she was telling stories. I was even able to share with her feedback if she was villainizing her boyfriend, my mom, her kids or acting like a victim (and as I sit here writing this I recall how afraid I was each time I would ask her if I could tell her how she sounded.). In the beginning she was so amazed at the explanation of these concepts that she actually asked me where I Iearned “all this” from, so I gave her my Crucial Conversations book. Sadly, in the last year things haven’t gone as well and we had a major falling out. The difference is that I made a decision in my life that she simply can’t accept and she clearly and without hesitation has made her disapproval very clear to me and other family members. Instead of changing my decision I am holding strong to my boundaries and have a clear conscience about my decision. I’ve spent so much time soul searching what actions I should take with my sister. During our recent arguments I told her that I still loved her and wanted her in my life even though we don’t see eye to eye we should still talk. Sadly, after repeated failed attempts and starting with heart, I am done being the one reaching out. I have learned to accept that the consequences of my decision to enforce my boundaries and believe in my decision, even if it means I am not able to have a relationship with my sister. I can rest at night and have peace within only because I tried to avoid this outcome through my prior conversations with her. I do hope that she has a change of heart, develops a better understanding in the future and if she calls me I will be open to having a relationship with her but will hold strong on my decision.

  7. Bill

    Emily… you’re best work to date! Bravo
    RE: your response to – How to Enjoy a Difficult Relationship

  8. Talia Champlin

    This was well-written and informative. Thank you!!! (And my sister will probably thank you, too!)

  9. Ray Ellison

    Well done!!

  10. Donna

    Hello, Emily. Thank you for this deep insight. I have actually passed this on to a few of my co-workers who are having difficulties with their managers. The differences between the managers (personality, style of leadership, communication skills [or lack of]), and their direct reports plays out almost daily, but most certainly in those times of 1:1s or when needing assistance or information in order to accomplish a goal or task. It is fascinating to me how much we refuse to see that we’re not willing to change but how insistent we can be that others change. The acceptance, understanding, and embracing of the differences can bring great freedom, and possibly great clarity of how to move forward, especially in light of expectations and hopes that just need to be set aside. Thanks for this wise word!

  11. Gabrielle Dalsasso

    Great perspective and advice.

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