Crucial Skills®

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Crucial Conversations for Mastering Dialogue

Improving Father-Daughter Relationships

Dear Crucial Skills,

My husband and our daughter fight a lot but when I try to diffuse the situation they often get angry at me, and as a result I resort to silence. Their most recent fight started with a simple request from my husband for our daughter to put the dog food in the garage and ended with them yelling at each other and my daughter going to her room yelling “I hate you, I’m moving out!”

After reading Crucial Conversations I decided to listen and evaluate their conversations. I learned they both go to violence and they both have the same goal—unfortunately, their common goal is to win the argument! Their relationship is getting worse all the time and I want to help them learn to communicate but I don’t know how.

Caught in the Middle

Dear Caught,

You are in a difficult position. You are the third party in a relationship with two people who badly mishandle their crucial conversations with each other. Your choice of reactions include: going against them and setting up a three-way gunfight; joining one and ganging up on the other; refusing to participate and walking away; or trying to change the way they interact. The last option is the best choice, but it’s also the most difficult.

Family therapists and professional facilitators spend years learning and conducting real-time mediations to help other people improve communication, but even with years of experience they do so with mixed results. Getting your family to agree to have you facilitate their crucial conversations would be tough enough; actually facilitating the conversations would be even harder.

Perhaps the best way to help your family is to have individual crucial conversations with your husband and your daughter about how they conduct themselves in their crucial conversations. Your role then is not to facilitate their conversations; rather, your role is to help them improve their conversations.

The key to holding effective crucial conversations is to create mutual purpose and mutual respect. These two conditions make it safe to dialogue about tough things.

First, have a conversation with your husband. Begin by sharing the facts with him. For example, you might say, “I noticed when you spoke with Jennifer yesterday about putting the dog food in the garage, you both got very angry and it turned into a fight.”

By sharing the facts and avoiding accusations, you minimize his defensiveness. You also introduce the subject of your conversation with your husband without placing blame.

Let’s say your husband (we’ll call him Larry) gets defensive and responds with, “It wasn’t my fault that it turned into a fight, it’s Jennifer’s lousy attitude that’s the problem.”

Make it safe for Larry by sharing your good intentions and clarifying your purpose. “Larry, I’m not blaming you or suggesting it’s your fault. I just want to figure out how to solve problems in a way that improves relationships in our family.” This skill, called “sharing your good intentions,” discloses what your motives are and identifies your purposes. It also helps your husband see that this conversation is not an attack.

Perhaps Larry responds with silence. Check to see if your purpose is mutual.

“What I want is for problems to be solved—like Jennifer putting the dog food where it belongs—in a way that is respectful. I want her to feel you respect her and I also want her to treat you with respect. Is that what you want too?”

This purpose is likely one that he shares and desires also, in which case, you’ve successfully established mutual purpose.

If you sense your husband is reluctant to try a different approach, share with him the consequences you believe will result if things don’t change.

“Larry, if things don’t improve between you and Jennifer, I’m afraid there will be serious damage to your relationship that could last well into the future. She is getting to the age where she will be making some big decisions and leaving home. I’m worried that a strained relationship might push her away and make her hesitant to confide in us. That will make it difficult for us to be of help to her at this important time.”

If these consequences help him come around then you might move to getting his commitment. If he’s still resisting, you might share a consequence that shows him how this problem affects you. “When you fight with Jennifer, it really hurts me. I love you both and it scares me to see you attacking each other. I feel like our family is breaking apart and it causes me great pain.”

When he expresses a willingness to make things better, it is time to decide who does what by when. What exactly do you want him to do? Do you want him to apologize to Jennifer? Do you want them to sit down and discuss their relationship? Maybe you want him to start with baby steps. “Larry, I want your commitment that you’ll see your relationship with Jennifer as a higher priority than putting away the dog food. That doesn’t mean you let things slide, it just means you will handle things with her in a calm, respectful way. Do I have your promise?”

For someone who is reasonably good at interpersonal relationships, this dialogue may be sufficient for Larry to do things differently. If Larry is less skilled, you may need to factually and accurately describe some of the words and phrases he uses that are disrespectful. Give specific feedback on his behaviors and suggest replacement behaviors or skills that will help him improve.

After getting his agreement to do a better job, suggest a time and date to follow up and talk over how things are going.

After successfully navigating this crucial conversation with your husband, have the same conversation with your daughter.

Conversations with family members about their behavior are tough conversations to hold, but holding them and holding them well is crucial to the well-being of you and your family.

All the best,

Develop Your Crucial Skills

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22 thoughts on “Improving Father-Daughter Relationships”

  1. Dan Yoakam

    I could readily identify with “Caught in the Middle” as I used to engage in yelling matches with my teenage daughter. It was after one such episode that I began thinking that this was not the relationship that what I wanted with my daughter, especially since she would be leaving home in a few years. When I realized what I didn’t want, I was also able to state what I did want, and she also was tired of the constant friction. We sat down and had a discussion about what we both wanted and didn’t want in our relationship. We also involved my wife, so that at anytime, if our conversations started to get heated she would speak up, and we had agreed in advance to separate till we could once again speak civilly with each other.
    My daughter has grown up and moved out on her own, but we continue to enjoy a good relationship.

  2. Jane

    You suggested the best, but most difficult route, meeting with both family members separately and having a crucial conversation. Then you described a scenario for the wife to speak to the husband; but you didn’t finish up with the daughter. I’m assuming that one would follow the same thought process, but handling a teenage girl takes real skill, especially with her mother. Can you give us a suggested outline?

  3. Stephen Ruten

    The conversation with the husband sounds great but please continue this dialog with the teenaged daughter. Sometimes, they can be a little tough on Mom or Dad. It probably requires a similar approach but not quite the same as many teens are not that mature. We could use this for our grandkids as Daddy is in Iraq.
    Thanks again for the insight.

  4. Paul

    This is a great description of how to do it – I just hope I am able to execute on this plan. It is EXACTLY what I have been struggling with for several years, with my wife and daughter. Thanks for the advice, but could you come to my house and hold this conversation while I observed?…8>))

  5. Cheryl

    “Caught in the Middle” described a very similar situation I experienced with my own father. I realize now that it was a very difficult time for him — those years when his daughter is dating and getting ready to leave for university. It was certainly an awkward time for me as well. I was fortunate to have someone say to my father “you are going to miss her when she is gone” then immediately turn to me and say “and you are going to miss him.”

    At the time, my dad and I immediately found some common ground — we both thought the observation couldn’t be further from the truth! With all the arguments, moving away from home seemed like the perfect solution to both of us.

    After a few days a deeper realization settled upon both of us. Engaging in arguments over the little things might have been our way of making it easier for us to separate when the time came. Maybe that wasn’t the case at all, but it painted such a strong image that every time we began an argument we could “see” ourselves pushing the other away and we instinctively knew that wasn’t what we wanted.

    Either way, I know that for this Daddy’s little girl, facing the fact that there were big changes ahead that were both thrilling and scary made me realize I needed and wanted my dad in my corner. To this day, that special Father-Daughter bond is still very strong and very present in my life.

  6. David Bemis

    Regarding “Caught in the Middle”.I agreed with the answer up until you suggested that she ask for a “promise” from her husband. Subsequently, it was suggested that the wife give the husband feedback about his behavior and setting goals which they would later meet about to see about his progress. These interactions change the relationship from being equals to her being more like a therapist to him, which can lead to his feeling “one down” in the relationship. I would build on the earlier transactions by asking him if there is any way which I could be helpful in his process and trust that his good intentions would help him to follow through.

  7. mary lovell

    Agree totally with those who need more on the ‘next conversation’ — that with the daughter. Any conversation with Pre teen/teen daughters can be absolutely brutal. After wrestling w/ ‘love and logic’ types of approaches, have concluded that the problem w/ conversations w/ children, is that they don’t read the same books we are and don’t respond consistent w/ what the experts say they will!

  8. Patsi Maroney

    On one hand, I do like the steps Ron laid out for her to follow. And yet I think one piece was missing: I believe she also needs to set a clear boundary with both her husband and her daughter that she will not be the “go between” and will not do the “work” for them. She can act as a resource to both sides, but she should not take on the burden of “making” them communicate better. Otherwise, she’s going to get drawn deeper into the middle.

  9. Can a Conflict Confrontation Be a Positive Thing? | Parenting A Divorce

    […] Crucial Skills » Improving Father-Daughter Relationships […]

  10. Julia Miller

    I just successfully worked through this with my husband and son. IT WORKED GREAT! My son is 17. I’ve struggled with getting them to work together for years. They are both very strong personalities and butt heads over anything. I have both of them trying to get me to take sides and didn’t know what to do. We’d even done counseling that really didn’t help because they said just don’t disagree with your spouse in front of your child – but not how to solve the problems.

    The key for us really is that common goal. After the initial fight between them on a topic, I sat with my husband and we worked to what the common goal was. Then he and I went back to my son and talked about how to resolve the conflict. We stated our goal up-front so he knew where we were coming from. Any time the two of them started getting heated, I calmly asked if this was moving us to that goal and it calmed things down. In the next few days, when anything related to this got my husband riled up, I just asked my husband how we wanted to solve it based on the goal we set. Then everything would calm down. The emotion of father versus son was taken out.

  11. Jean Garcia

    Solving conflict between husband and wife is difficult unless both of them will sit down and talk about the issues they have.
    Being rational could help here a lot than being emotional. Letting the pride down is might help also.
    If conflict is not solved, this may trigger to unhealthy living the lead to divorce.
    So while the conflict is still fresh and small. Try to solve it early. And most of all, let god be the center of your family.

  12. Nikhil

    Found this material on how to resolve differences and reduce distance with father. Hope it helps.

  13. Someone but that's not important

    In this case I am the teen daughter and I feel that since we’re both just so hard strong and have such a similar personality that we both feel the constant need to have everything go right and be right all the time. I hope this helps even the tiniest bit.

  14. Imogen

    what happens when the husband resents the wife for trying to help and the daughter resents the mother for trying to have her communicate with her father?

    1. Deb

      Same boat. Sitting in my car now, crying in a parking lot. The tension is making me physically sick. I feel the fighting really is mostly due to my husband’s communication and anger issues. This sets my daughter off. I feel that I need to protect her, not trying to take sides though. I tried all of the above (multiple times), but like you said- husband is resentful -and frustrated and my daughter is broken hearted. I cannot fix this and its killing me. So tired of being caught in the middle. I am lost here and overwhelmed at the moment. I feel trapped.

      1. Diane Skevington

        Hi Deb I know your post is a year and a half old but I feel like you did this day are things any better I just don’t know what to do. Di x

      2. Michelle

        I feel your pan Deb, did you ever get the problems resolved between your husband and daughter?

  15. Everlyne

    I’m having the same problems with my dad,before i was even a teen,sometimes i even think of committing suicide,or just moving out of the house,but i can’t, he’s the sole provider and takes advantage of that,my mom always tries to calm me down ,she tells me to perservere but its too much, having the same issues over and over,i feel like my energy is drained, He is always picking fights with me and makes me look like I’m the bad person and wants me to apologize for the mistakes he has caused

    1. Michelle

      Sorry to hear you have had problems, did you ever fix your relationship with your dad? Michelle

  16. Padmini

    Thanks a lot for sharing this incident n the way to tackle such situation. It really helped me to get my dad and sister come in good terms.

  17. Tracy

    My 15 year old daughter and my husband are constantly at each other.
    It’s like they hate one and other.
    Both feel disrespected
    He tells her to clean her room and she doesn’t
    When asked to do anything around the house she gets snappy
    He retaliates and it’s world war 3 in my home.

    She always talks angrily and when I point it out she responds with “ that’s how I talk”

    He says she’s rude and disrespectful and she says the same about him.

    She wants to move out when she’s 16 and I’m scared for her.

    It is a repeat all over again with my first daughter from a relationship way before him.

    I don’t know what to do. I’m stressed out, I’m walking on eggshells in my own home

    1. Steph

      How are you going Tracy? Similar situation here. I am thinking of you. At the moment I’m focusing on keeping a connected relationship between me and my daughter while I gently try to navigate my partners behaviour. My daughter is hard work (always has been) but my partner turns a small issue that could have been resolved calmly into a war that he must win at all costs. He seems to lose sight of the issue and gets fixated on winning and punishing. He thinks I’m weak because I wait and then talk to her (and usually get an apology and a hug). Unless I have “punished” her he thinks I have let her get away with bad behaviour.

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