Al Switzler is coauthor of three bestselling books, Influencer, Crucial Conversations, and Crucial Confrontations. His fourth book, Change Anything, will be available April 2011.
Dear Crucial Skills,
I need help to work through my relationship with my two married daughters. We live in different states and even though I would like them to call me more often, I initiate most of our conversations. I understand they are busy raising their children, but I need them in my life more than they are. I don’t want to know everything they do, but I would like to have conversations with them several times a week. I have listened to the Crucial Conversations Audio Companion several times and realize that, even though I am their mother, I cannot dictate or expect that they be my friend and talk on the phone daily. It is a delicate subject and I’m not sure how to approach them about it.
Some issues are more difficult to bring up than others. When there is a clear agreement it is easier to speak up, but this is rarely the case. The issue often morphs from something that was acceptable to something that was borderline to something that bugs you. In the course of that evolution, we rarely find a way to speak up, and now, at the end of the process, we feel we can’t.
For example, a friend and neighbor you socialize with has had some hard times and now he or she spends whatever time you have together complaining. Every interaction is a downer and makes you feel like Dr. Phil with a muzzle.
Or what do you do when you feel that every conversation with your best friend is one sided? You ask about what’s new, about his or her family, about the economy, about the news (etc.), but he or she never asks any questions about your life. It feels like pulling teeth to have a two-sided conversation.
Or how do you bring up and discuss the fact that your spouse never expresses appreciation? It doesn’t matter what you do for him or her—give flowers, change a flat tire, etc.—he or she never thanks you for your time or efforts.
I bring up these examples because, faced with similar situations, I tell myself stories and explain away the other person’s actions by saying “It’s just how she is,” “He wasn’t raised correctly,” “She will never change,” or “If I speak up, I will just be seen as needy, greedy, or selfish and it will sound like I’m singing loudly, ‘ME! ME! ME!'” You are not alone. I, too, have several of these unaddressed issues on my radar screen. (Yes, we all have challenges.) Maybe as I share some principles and advice, I’ll help find my own answers.
So here is the challenge: How do we determine if we need to speak up? Ask yourself these questions:
Am I acting it out instead of talking it out? The major way we do this is to talk about the person and the problem instead of talking to the person about the issue.
Is that little voice in my head constantly bugging me? If that little voice is saying, “Why doesn’t she call?” “Why do I have to initiate every conversation?” or “Why can’t she be an adult about this?” then I can guarantee subtle nonverbal messages are leaking out—loudly. They will show your frustration and judgments almost every time.
Am I downplaying the costs of not speaking up and exaggerating the dangers of speaking up? If you are trying too hard to convince yourself to remain silent, you have a cost-benefit problem—you’re only counting the costs and not the benefits.
Have I convinced myself that I’m helpless, that there is nothing else I can do? The masters we studied always found a next step, even if that meant working to increase their skills or finding a friend to talk to about the issue to increase their options.
So here are a couple of strategies to help you master your stories and improve your relationships with your daughters.
Make a new agreement. Tell your daughters you’d welcome the opportunity to talk a couple of times a week and find convenient times to do so. For example, suggest that you could call each Sunday night and ask them if there is a regular and convenient time they might call you. If they agree, then you are well on your way to a solution.
Share your intentions. Tell your daughters you’d like to have more regular contact. Tell them what you don’t want—which is to be an interruption during busy times or to take a lot of their time. Tell them you’d like to hear and share what’s happening in their lives, but you don’t think long conversations are necessary. If that works for them, you have a plan.
At this point, there are two options. If they say no, you need to talk about their reasons for doing so and alternative solutions that would work for them. If they agree but don’t follow through, you’ll have to hold them accountable to your plan. Both of these conversations will be much easier to hold because you are already talking and expectations are clear. This is true for family, friends, neighbors, and coworkers. (Are you listening to yourself, Al?)
I’ll close with a personal story. For a number of years (okay, ten or twelve), my mother and I didn’t talk very much. Without getting into too many details, let me admit that I quit calling often to see if she would call me. She only called when there was a crisis or when she needed money, and from my perspective, she often didn’t tell the truth. I told myself some very clever stories about her motives and my situation was framed by watching and listening to my wife talk to her mother a couple of times a week. I admired their relationship, so after several years, I told myself a better story and called my mother. After a few calls, I asked if she would call me every once in a while “just to talk.” It was hard, even awkward, at first, but it got better. She still didn’t call very often, but I did. We talked almost every week for years, and our relationship improved. Four years ago, she passed away and I can’t tell you how glad I am that I took that step to call more often.