Crucial Skills®

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Crucial Conversations for Mastering Dialogue

Saving a Relationship From the Sidelines

Dear Crucial Skills,

I recently visited my brother who has suffered from severe anxiety for about a year. He’s getting better but things are still tough for him. I noticed that his wife is very impatient with him and at times, I feel, belligerent. It’s very upsetting for me to see this. I understand that the situation is very difficult for her, but I wonder if I can say or do something to help her be more compassionate. I’m trying not to judge her, but I’m not always successful. What can I do to deal with my own feelings and to help her?

Trying Not to Judge

Dear Trying,

If there ever was a question that many people could identify with, it would be yours. Life comes at us fast. In the midst of these changes or crises, loved ones may do things that seem less than effective, even downright wrong. When situations arise we may wonder, “how can I deal with my own emotions and help at the same time?”

It is tempting to rely on the company message here. Over the years, we’ve given lots of advice regarding the basic crucial conversations steps. Essentially, that message is to first, get your emotions and motives right; second, find or create a safe time and place to discuss your concerns; and then use all of your best skills to work things out. Ideally, you’d follow all of that with increased sunshine and good feelings. I don’t want to dismiss that as an option because every day, many people step up and help improve sticky situations like the one you have described. However, what I want to share are a few strategies for people who don’t believe they are ready to speak up. I hope to give you some ways for increasing safety and for influencing your sister-in-law’s and brother’s best behaviors.

Step 1: Master your stories to manage your emotions. You hinted at this step and I agree with you. The two most common ineffective strategies that people use in situations like this are silence (with gossip) and starting a difficult conversation with emotion and accusation. You don’t want to do either, so I’d ask you to ask yourself a few questions. Why would a reasonable, rational, decent person do this? Could she be stressed? Could she not have skills that would help her with patience or with managing her own frustration? If this were your sister dealing with your brother-in-law, might you see it differently and feel differently? How would you approach it then? Why is your brother doing what he’s doing? How could you help him? It’s been my experience that when I ask myself similar questions, I often find that the situation is more complicated than I had originally thought. Through this process, I become more patient and increase my options for dealing with the situation. We have often taught that we need to work on ourselves first. Asking yourself these questions can help you get your heart and head right before you act or speak.

Step 2: Model the behaviors you’d like to see your sister-in-law and brother do and then share the reasons. I have a friend who shared a story that is very much like yours. On a recent family visit, she decided that she would help her brother with a few things and that she would do the same with her sister-in-law. During the weeklong visit, she was an example of listening patiently, of asking questions to get clarity, and of doing the little things that helped her brother. On a few occasions, she explained what she was doing. With her sister-in-law, it might have sounded like this, “It’s harder than it used to be to determine what my brother wants. I have to encourage him more than I used to. That takes some patience.” With her brother, she might have noted, “I had to ask three times, before you responded. Can you help me understand why? I want to help, but it’s difficult when I don’t know what to do.” She didn’t make a big deal of it. She just did it and said a few words about her reasons. We know the power of a good example. But a good example with a bit of an explanation is even more powerful.

Step 3: Praise the positives you see. My friend also used praise to help her sister-in-law and brother see what was effective. When her sister-in-law demonstrated encouragement to her husband or when she showed increased patience, she commented. I imagine it sounded something like: “At noon, when my brother left that mess, I noticed that you smiled during the whole conversation. I know it’s hard to be patient in situations like that. It’s not like it used to be. I’m sure my brother appreciated that. I know I sure admired it. Thanks.” Or to her brother, “I enjoyed the story you shared at dinner. It was very positive and helped create a pleasant atmosphere for all of us.” Now these are scripts I have imagined. What she said was no doubt more elegant and effective. But the principle is this: if you praise good behaviors and the efforts to improve, and then explain the consequences of those actions, people are more likely to repeat them.

Step 4: Be ready to share your intentions. I’m sure as people have read some of these steps they’ve asked, “Yeah, but what if the other person gets upset and says, ‘Hey, what are you trying to do to me—you have an agenda, right?’” That’s when I’d share exactly what I was trying to do. “I do have a purpose. I want to help improve the relationship between you and your husband (or wife). I didn’t want to talk about what I didn’t understand, so I’m trying to be a good example and to praise good listening, patience, and service. I also want to improve our relationship so we talk about issues that really matter. It seems like you’ve had a year of stress and unhappiness, and I’m trying to help.”

We know that safety is at the heart of healthy dialogue. The foundational components of safety are Mutual Purpose and Mutual Respect. Sometimes, we need to work on safety first. We need to clarify what we are trying to do. Often, we need to build trust and respect before we have enough safety to speak up. The steps I’ve suggested are designed to help accomplish that objective and if you act in ways that are building safety, you can share what you are doing and why if someone questions you. That should help you move forward in solving some of these situations that appear when life comes at you fast. At some point, we have all wished for a silver bullet or a magic wand. There is none. What we have are our best efforts supported by our best intentions.

I wish you well,


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3 thoughts on “Saving a Relationship From the Sidelines”

  1. Dianne

    I agree with above strategies. In addition, perhaps your sister-in-law needs some support. The caregiver or partner deals with a lot of stress. She may not understand or “buy” into his illness, or may be overloaded in dealing with this. Taking some of the burden off of her may help her be a better caregiver and partner to your brother. This can be seen with cancer, addictions, illness, life stressors, and other situations. She also is dealing with a lot and needs help and support too!

  2. Dick Dye

    Here are some observations and recommendations from the husband of a severely depressed and anxious wife. My wife has battled severe depression and anxiety for years.

    First, if the author’s sister-in-law is “very impatient with him and at times, I feel, belligerent,” I suggest congratulating her sister-in-law for sticking it out and not throwing in the towel. Living with a person suffering from “severe anxiety” is incredibly difficult. If the sister-in-law is, at times, belligerent, she is doing very well if she is not constantly belligerent; the frustration generated by an anxious person is not understandable until you have experienced it.

    Second, offer a listening ear for your sister-in-law to blow off steam. Let her vent her frustrations without judgment. Offer support and empathy.

  3. Patricia Frame

    Great ideas for talking in column and above for real-world actions. Many caregivers get ill themselves from the stress, one thing most could use is a real break. Offer your sister-in-law a few days off where you will care for your brother, next time it might be a week if you can.

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