Crucial Skills®

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Crucial Conversations for Mastering Dialogue

How to Help Others Get Along

Dear Steve,

My husband and twenty-eight-year-old stepson get into arguments that are emotionally hurtful to both of them. They don’t listen to each other, and just yell, blame, and berate each other. In the past, I have stayed out of it and let them “duke it out.” But I don’t like how it makes me feel or the spirit of contention it brings to our home. I don’t think I would let them physically duke it out and I think the emotional damage is as harmful as a physical fight. What can I do as a bystander to help them address their difference of opinion in a healthier way? Should I address it during the heat of the moment or try to teach them skills when the emotions aren’t so raw? Or maybe a combination? Please help.

Stuck in the Middle

Dear Stuck,

A popular tenet of the Kaizen method teaches that it is better to have the wrong solution to the right problem, than the right solution to the wrong problem.

One of my very early clients began every interaction with this oft-quoted phrase. Over time, I began to mature in my problem-solving approach. In the beginning, I believed that as long as I had the right solution, everything would work itself out. Later, I realized that in order to get to the right solution, I had to make sure I started with the right problem. I’ve since discovered that having the right timing for the right solution is also important. Sounds like you’re trying to figure out that third element.

I don’t think people realize how difficult it is to watch the conditions of respect and civility erode right in front of you. Like you, most choose to stay out of it—and it’s not usually a case of bystander apathy. Usually, these are well-intentioned individuals who suffer from bystander agony. They’d like to step in and stop the mayhem, but just aren’t sure how to do so. It turns out, it’s only slightly more painful to be involved directly in a conflict than to watch it happen.

So, when and how to intervene? To explore that, let’s take a look at a story I received permission to share with you. It comes from one of my co-workers, Dax, who found himself in a very similar situation to your husband and stepson. Read on to see how Dax broke out of the cycle that caused his family pain.

“Almost 15 years ago, when I was young, my father and I fought constantly. Both of us were bullheaded, aggressive, and had no time for anyone else’s opinions.

This went on my entire childhood and progressively got worse. We reached the point where we actively avoided each other, or risked an all-out war.

One day, my dad came home with a book someone gave him at work. It was called Crucial Conversations. He asked me if I would read it with him.

We spent the next few weeks sitting down and reading the book together, chapter by chapter. After finishing each chapter, we discussed what we read.

Our daily battles suddenly turned into crucial conversations. When we started getting heated, we asked each other, ‘Why would a reasonable, rational person do or say what you just said?’ We laid out the facts rather than told ourselves a story about what we thought the other had said.

After just a few months, we went from actively avoiding each other, to having a real relationship not strained by misconceptions and hurtful words.

At present, our relationship is stronger than ever and we rely on each other equally for guidance with our day-to-day crucial moments.”

So, what should we learn from Dax’s story? Upon first read, it’s easy to see how two people benefitted from a solution that appeared to resolve their problems. But there’s also a subtler lesson. There was a third party, a not so apathetic or agony-ridden bystander who intervened—a co-worker gave Dax’s dad a book. That book turned out to be the right solution for the right problem delivered at the right time.

So often, our efforts fall short because we deliver our solution at the wrong time. We miss, or misinterpret, when the teachable moment is. This coworker didn’t try to offer the solution in the middle of a heated argument. He or she shared a solution in a moment removed from conflict. My personal bias is to let conflict play out unless it’s leading to serious and/or long-term relationship damage, in which case it’s okay to step-in. But just because you’ve paused the interaction doesn’t mean that’s the most teachable moment for those directly involved in the conflict. Remember, emotions are chemical while thoughts are electrical. You’re likely much further ahead in your crucial conversations thought process than either of the chemically-overpowered individuals you’d like to coach. Be patient. It takes time for the effects of the chemicals to subside so the brain can think clearly again. Look for a time when the person or persons can be reflective and open to suggestion.

Once you’ve found the right time, here are some ideas on how to get the best response.

I’ve found it to be overwhelming when I’ve been handed a book that contains the solution to my problem. I’d like to get some relief, but don’t want to wade through an entire book to figure out what I should do. So, don’t yield to the temptation to dump whole chapters or highlighted passages without any direction. I’ve found it helpful to point people to a specific idea or skill. You can use a book to do so, but take a little time to help them navigate the content. This way they experience the value of the content along with any tips or insights you have about application opportunities.

In these situations, it’s also helpful to work out a Mutual Purpose. Many of you who’ve found yourself in this situation are probably thinking, “but that’s the problem—we have no mutual purpose!” The beauty of mutual purpose is you don’t have to agree in order to experience it. The whole approach to finding mutual purpose is by creating an interim purpose. “Let’s see if we can jointly come up with a solution to our conversation process challenges because we don’t seem to have mutual purpose in regard to the topic that’s causing conflict.” It helps people experience what having a mutual purpose feels like—the shift from what “I” really want to what “we” really want.

I’m going to close with another over-quoted, yet applicable adage: it takes a village. Or in this case, it takes one well-intentioned bystander to offer the right solution in the teachable moment. I hope you can find this with the relationships you value most. Good luck, and stay focused on what you really want.


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4 thoughts on “How to Help Others Get Along”

  1. Raymond W. Wheeler

    Hello Steve and Happy New Year.

    I just read your article, “How to Help Others Get Along”. It’s amazing that a similar situation evolved in my own household with my wife and her son. Things became heated over Christmas when my stepson responded to my wife’s concern about how he was carelessly using her vehicle – not checking the oil, letting it run out of gas, driving around on an almost flat tire, etc. During this exchange, he made an almost unforgiveable retort, “I don’t care!” And he didn’t say it once. He emphasized it three times. My wife was devastated and I was pained to the point of wanting to throw him out of the house and let him fend for himself in the subzero weather.

    Naturally, my wife was emotionally grief-stricken that the son she had and would literally do anything for would be so cavalier and ungrateful that he would callously tell her he didn’t care. She was suffering, I was suffering, and I hoped he was suffering – with regret.

    As a Crucial Conversations Trainer, I thought long and hard about how to approach this situation. So, after about three days, I sent him a text; not because I was afraid of a face-to-face, but I knew how volatile he could be in a such a raw and sensitive situation. So, in essence I advised him that I understood the myriad of emotions he must be going through, and that as much as he was going through, so was his mother, if not worse. Furthermore, I let him know that right now, this situation is not about him, but his mother and that whatever he decides – whether to stay or leave – he needs to fix the relationship. I shared a word picture of how devastating it would be for him should he leave under these circumstances and something happen to his mother. Could he live with that? It was vitally important for him to apologize and try to work out their differences if that is what he truly wanted.

    I was hoping he would take some time to consider these suggestions. Well, he did, about two days later. They talked, he apologized and now they are working out the issues of respect, responsibility and mutual goals. It’s in the early stages and I am hoping things will continue as we all work towards stronger, more open and respectful interactions in the New Year.

    Thank you, Steve.

    1. Steve

      thanks for sharing this. it’s always gratifying to see the work of re-building a relationship make an impact–even if it’s small at first.

  2. Clifford Spoonemore

    Very interesting points. In the beginning I too was ready to JUDGE rather than understand the situation. First, they must like to argue or they would avoid it. Second, is this a way for the husband to force a different outcome, if his son is still in the home. Then maybe that is how his father interacted with him.

    The turn to an alternate and totally different solution is a great key. An interest that neither has an advantage over the other is a great way to build mutual trust. Crucial Conversation is a great tool and if they can work on this subject together this will have the side benefit of helping them with other relationships outside the home environment.

    Good Luck,

  3. Steve

    Transference is one of the biggest benefits I’ve experienced with Crucial Conversations skills. They’re just so darned useful.

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