Crucial Skills®

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Crucial Conversations for Mastering Dialogue

Mending Family Ties

Al Switzler is coauthor of the New York Times bestsellers, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Confrontations, and Influencer.

Al Switzler is author of three bestselling books, Influencer, Crucial Conversations, and Crucial Confrontations.


During the month of July, we will be running “best of” content from the authors. The following article first appeared on August 15, 2007.

Crucial ConversationsQ Dear Crucial Skills,
My son asked my brother for a big, non-monetary favor, and my brother turned him down. Now my son is very angry and cuts himself out of the family activities whenever my brother is involved. He refuses to go to my brother’s house for family events or be friendly when my brother is included.

He is holding a deep grudge and the anger is hard on everyone. I’ve tried to talk to him about this—how the grudge is hurting him more than my brother and how the anger is eating at him. I’ve also tried to explain what this tension does to the rest of the family and the sadness it causes. So far he has blocked me out and won’t discuss it. I know the problem is my son’s, but it’s hurtful to me as well. My brother has acted like an adult and is open to my son, but he has not apologized—and I’m not sure he has anything to apologize for. What next?

The Family Peacekeeper

A Dear Peacekeeper,
You described a tough situation that I’m sure many people identify with. This leads me to an observation before I offer some suggestions.

I’m interested that you signed off as a “peacekeeper.” Judging by your description of the situation, I believe you are. To keep the family strong, you have encouraged people to surface the issues and resolve them. Good for you. Not everyone who calls himself or herself a peacekeeper is one. Often a more accurate description is “avoidance coordinator” or “problem hider.” These people use phrases like, “Oh, don’t bring that up, it’ll just cause more problems,” or “Let it rest; time will cure it.”

Your efforts so far are right on track to me. And your frustration is one I can identify with—because nothing matters more to me than family. Now for a suggestion:

You have done well in talking to your son about the consequences to him, the family, your brother, and you. One question you might consider is how your son perceived the conversations you’ve had with him. How did your motive come across? In crucial conversations we learn to Start with Heart. Ask yourself, “What am I acting like I want?” Sometimes our motive comes across as selfish and short term. Did your son see you as nagging? Or as taking your brother’s side?

Motive precedes message. When your motive is genuine and seen as mutual and long term, the other person is very likely to hear you. To find a more effective motive, ask yourself “What do I really want for me, for my son, and for our relationship?” The first two parts help the motive become mutual; the relationship part helps the motive become long term. If the answer helps you ask more questions about your son’s motives, choices, and desires, then perhaps the conversation will be seen as a mutual dialogue and not another “lesson.” By starting with heart, you are more likely to end up with the relationship and the results you desire.

You might also ask your brother to talk to your son about his desires. The simplest form of this is to combine an observation and a question. For example:

“I’ve noticed that you don’t come to our home and you no longer talk to me. I want you to know that I want to have a wonderful relationship with you and would like very much if we could talk through this so we can resolve it.”

You are not asking your brother to apologize, just to make the request for dialogue and share his intentions to have a good relationship. This minimal step can help clarify that your brother has good feelings toward your son and that his decision not to help your son out was not personally motivated.

We won’t necessarily resolve all the tough situations we face. But if we keep trying, using our best skills gives us our best chance for improving results and relationships.

Best wishes,

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

4 thoughts on “Mending Family Ties”

  1. New Guy

    The question that popped into my mind when I read this was, “what is the son really mad about?” Is he mad at the brother or mad because he can’t do the activity that he needs the monitary support for. Sometimes that frustration at not being able to carry out a path that is important to you can be redirected to another person who diverted you from the path. the son could really be mad because he can’t come up with another way to achieve his goal and be avoiding the brother so as not to be reminded that he doesn’n have a new path to achieve the goal. Perhaps helping the son understand his heart and motives will help mend his relationship with the brother. Who knows, maybe the brother can help the son establish a new path to his goal even if he doesn’t give him the money for the original path. The son’s attitude to the brother may actually be a barrier to achieving his goal.

    New Guy.

  2. Lois

    Seeing this message from 2007 makes me so curious whether and how the matter was resolved. Please share if you find out!

  3. Kristin

    It’s interesting as I was thinking about my own comments and read New Guys’ comments I got what I needed for a conflict of my own.

    What I was thinking around motive was something we often speak to, intent. I was wondering if the brother could reveal (if he hadn’t already) his intent in denying the son the money. Maybe along with the frustration at being derailed of his goals, he’s wondering about his worth to his uncle. Maybe he’s feeling unworthy of his uncle’s assistance and that is also what hurts…So maybe the uncle can say “My intent in saying no is… and (leaning on what New Guy said) how about Plan B…”. However this is just speculation without being behind those coversations behind closed doors.

  4. New Guy

    Another good angle to look at this case from. Refusal could have damaged the son’s self esteem/self image. Great!@Kristin

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