Crucial Skills®

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Crucial Conversations for Mastering Dialogue

Third-Party Responsibility


Joseph Grenny

Joseph Grenny is coauthor of four New York Times bestsellers, Change Anything, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Confrontations, and Influencer.


Crucial Conversations

QDear Authors,

From a very early age, my husband was trained to be responsible for more than typical, age-appropriate tasks—house cleaning and food shopping at age ten, providing personal hygiene care for an ill older brother at eighteen, etc. He has continued to demonstrate a greater-than-typical responsibility throughout his adult life. This has extended to providing “reminders” and “corrective suggestions” to our children. They are now adults, and have begun to suggest boundaries and ask that he not remind them. For example, they ask that they be allowed to send or not send birthday cards or thank you notes on their own without his reminding. Their requests have been made respectfully, but he sees their messages as “Mind your own business” and is offended and angry.

Is there a crucial conversation I can have with him before it impacts his relationships, or do these need to be crucial conversations between my husband and our kids?

Interested Bystander

A Dear Bystander,

You ask a very important question. It’s a question that deserves a principle response.

The question is, “When are we responsible to step up to a crucial conversation?”

Unfortunately, most people answer the question in the narrowest terms possible. They tend to think about whether or not the formal boundaries of a role they occupy require them to have this crucial conversation. They tend to frame their decision in these narrow terms because, for some people, crucial conversations are intrinsically unpleasant, they want to find a way to minimize the number of crucial conversations we hold. This is the same reason people avoid going to the dentist. We are so fixated on what will happen if we go that we fail to ask the far more important question: What will happen if we don’t?

So, our natural and unchecked tendency is to minimize our sense of responsibility for holding crucial conversations by demanding evidence that we are squarely, completely, and personally responsible to speak up. We make this decision emotionally rather than rationally or ethically.

So I love your question. And here’s my answer.

The principle that I think should govern our answer to the responsibility question is, “Is the situation affecting results that are important to you?” Period.

Now, dear readers, don’t misunderstand. When I suggest that this question should govern our decision to speak up, I don’t necessarily mean that this dictates to whom you should speak.

For example, if I witness illegal activity in my organization and the senior manager who should be dealing with it is not, then my crucial conversation would not necessarily be with the offender. It might more likely be with the senior manager, or with HR, etc. By saying this I simply want to illustrate that the decision to speak up and the decision about what conversation to hold are two separate decisions.

Now that I’ve circled above your question, let me swoop in and make a couple of points.

I believe your crucial conversation should be with your husband. You obviously care deeply about the quality of his relationship with his children. You care about this relationship both for your children and for him. You want him to be appreciated, loved, doted on—like all fathers ought to be. And in your view, his behavior is getting in the way of this result—something you care a lot about.

So you should speak up. And you should speak up to him. Here are a few suggestions for that conversation.

First, make it extraordinarily safe. Tell him you want to discuss something that you think is very important to him. There’s a pattern you’ve noticed emerging with the kids that you believe is keeping him from having the relationship you know is very important to him. Honor him for his love and concern for them and make it crystal clear that your goal is not to criticize but to demonstrate loyalty and support for his values.

Second, hold the right conversation. Keep the focus on the emerging pattern, not on any specific instance (like recent birthday card reminders, etc.). If he asks for examples of the issue, share them. But remind him these are just specific instances of an ongoing pattern—and that the pattern is the key issue.

Third, clearly describe consequences. Take time before opening up the conversation to identify two or three consequences he already knows about that are directly related to his behavior. Identify consequences that he probably doesn’t realize are related. For example, are his children making less contact with him? When they visit, do they spend more time talking to you than to him? Or are they, in fact, doing less of what he wants them to do than they ordinarily would? Your goal in this conversation will be to help this wonderful man see how his own behavior is keeping him from things that are important to him. If you do this in an atmosphere of safety, nothing will be more motivating to change than this connection.

Do your homework, be sure your examples will be clear and compelling, hold the conversation at a quiet, focused time when you can do it in a loving way, and I’m very confident he’ll respond.

Finally, realize that habits of a lifetime don’t change with one conversation. Be sure to end the conversation with a more robust plan about how you can make this an ongoing conversation and provide coaching and support for him.

Good luck. He’s lucky to have you.

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

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