Crucial Skills®

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Crucial Conversations for Mastering Dialogue

What to Say When People Break Boundaries

Dear Steve,

I recently built and moved into my dream home. My partner’s daughter has four very unruly children who do not respect my boundaries. How do I have the crucial conversation I need to have, so both my partner and his daughter understand that the children need to be taught to respect others and demonstrate good manners in the homes of other people?

Dream Weaver

Dear Dream Weaver,

When I left home to live on my own, I never realized that choosing to share living space with others would bring me face-to-face with so many different crucial conversations. And it didn’t matter if we had known each other previously or not. The shared space seemed to be the biggest factor in whether issues became crucial.

In your situation, I’d recommend you focus on two crucial conversations meta-skills: notice and act.

It sounds like you are at the nexus of several different conversations and therein lies the challenge. Since the conversations are related, there’s a huge temptation to approach them as if they were the same conversation when they are, in reality, distinct and different. From my reading of your situation, I count at least two separate issues that need attention and focus. It sounds like you have concerns that need to be discussed with the kids who are violating boundaries. And another, separate conversation with your partner about response—or in this case, lack of response—to the kids’ behavior.

Since both are related to the undesirable behavior, people are tempted to bring everybody into one room and hash it out, or only talk to your partner about the kids’ behavior. I’d recommend that you talk to your partner first so you can reaffirm, establish, or re-negotiate how you’ll work together on issues like these.

Much of what partners find really troublesome is tied to not feeling supported by or aligned with each other when trying to address difficult issues. So, in essence, you now have two problems you’re trying to solve simultaneously: You’re unhappy about the kids’ behavior and also starting to feel an increasing frustration that your partner isn’t supporting you like you’d expect him or her to. You’ll find that as you’re able to address these two issues separately, they will be much easier to work through than if you bundle them.

So, handle them one at a time and I’d recommend that you work on the one with your partner first. Once you’ve sorted things out with your partner, you can then jointly (being the key word here) address the kids’ behavior.

In this case, the skills for holding the conversation are the same for both topics you want to discuss. It isn’t always the case that you’d need the same skills, but this time it happens to be. The two sets of skills I’d focus on here would be Make It Safe and STATE my Path.

• Make It Safe. This is where you take the time to ensure that your loved ones know and understand that they are indeed loved ones. It’s really easy in this type of discussion to lose sight of this step. When this happens, people start telling themselves stories about you, why you’re bringing the issue up and even what it means. You can head off a lot of these problems by Making It Safe. In practice, this means that you actively reinforce your purpose for bringing up the issue throughout the conversation (i.e., if talking with the kids, then “catching a problem before it gets out of hand,” or, if talking with your partner, then “making sure we work together to address concerns,”). When you notice your partner or the kids becoming defensive, it’s great to pause and make sure they know that while you don’t love the behavior being exhibited, you do love them. Contrasting is a great skill to use here to help people see what you do and don’t want. In essence, you don’t want your relationship with them to go away, just the distracting behavior.

• STATE My Path. Now onto the “open your mouth and let the words do the work” part. While the skill set here provides a nice structure to this, it does not mean that it will be easy—just possible. So, in order to get your words working for you, approach these conversations with STATE: Share your facts, Tell your story, Ask for others’ paths, Talk tentatively, and Encourage testing.

Usually, people use STATE to tell other people what they’re noticing about them. I’d encourage you to use it to tell your loved ones about you. People often use STATE as if they are building a lawsuit against the other person: “These are the facts, and therefore you must accept conclusion Y!” Instead, you want your loved ones to understand how you’ve come to the conclusions you’ve come to.

Let me suggest a framework script to illustrate this point. “I’d like to talk with you about some things that I’ve noticed over the last little while. I have some observations that I’d like to share with you and some of the conclusions I’m starting to draw, and then I’d be really interested in hearing your perspective.” At this point, pause to check for safety, and when you feel you can, proceed with a statement like, “I’ve noticed that (insert a couple of observations here). And you may not be fully aware of this, but when I see these things it represents a violation of (insert your tentative conclusions here). So I wanted to talk with you to get your take on it.” At this point, you’ll want to reassess safety to ensure the conversation continues in a healthy and productive tone.

Like I said, this doesn’t take the angst out of the conversation, but hopefully provides some guidance for how to more successfully navigate this tough conversation.

Best of luck,

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

7 thoughts on “What to Say When People Break Boundaries”

  1. carol Davison

    dear dream weaver,
    after holding your crucial conversations, and saying I feel x when you do you do y, expect some hostility. let it go. afterward LOOK to catch them doing what you asked. say “John, thanks for putting the wet towels in the hamper. Jane, I appreciate your helping with the dishes. if Henry mows the lawn, make his favorite dessert and say “because Henry keeps the yard lovely I made his favorite brownies!” by doing so you are rewarding Henry and inspiring John and Jane to higher conduct. also, you can schedule time away from home at the movies, library, with friends, etc to minimize friction as well. best tof you.

  2. Debi Potter

    I am grateful that this came to me today. My situation is a bit more stressful in that my problem is with a 29 year old step-daughter who is living with us and is also my husbands recently hired new office manager. There is a history of physical/verbal abuse from his former wife/her mother that plays into some of the issues. I have trouble “standing up for myself” because I end up being the “bud guy” not only from my step-daughter but from my husband. I need to read you books and get some counseling because this is killing my marriage.

    1. Cappy

      Your SD needs to move out.

  3. Grizzly Bear Mom

    So sorry that you are stuck between a rock and a hard place. I wish you wisdom, love and courage.

  4. Hilary Anne Mayhew

    I always appreciate these blogs for helping me apply the book’s lessons to real world problems. For Dream Weaver, I was thinking it would also be important to start with Mastering My Stories, to examine where your boundaries are rooted and what expectations you’re willing to adjust as well. It may not apply to you, DW, since we don’t know the specifics of the boundaries you mention of course, but I wanted to offer thoughts from a “family culture” perspective. It may be fruitful to spend time before this conversation considering where you and your partner’s family may have different family cultures, norms, and assumptions about acceptable behaviors. For any growing family, everyone is adjusting to new expectations, and bringing their norms from the past to interact with new people. Some friction is a natural result and should be expected. It can be really helpful, I’ve found, to check in before Interpreting this friction as evidence of bad behavior though. Sometimes, it is simply a matter of not yet being able to fully grasp each other’s expectations. It can become a rich opportunity for growth together as a family.

    As one example, if I’ve always seen my bedroom as private space where children shouldn’t enter, but the family I’m joining has always had an “open door policy” where kids are encouraged to come in any time, those expectations are going to clash. I want my bedroom to myself, and I say so. This doesn’t make intuitive sense to the kids (or their parents), so the kids have a hard time internalizing this expectation and the parents often forget that I’m “weird” in this way, or resist enforcing a rule they don’t understand. I keep reminding, it rarely “sticks” and we’re increasingly frustrated. If we’re not careful, I may develop a story that the kids are disrespectful and the parents rude. Meanwhile, the parents may think I’m unreasonable and don’t want to bond with their kids. My partner wants everyone to get along and is confused about how their loved ones could have come up with such uncharitable stories about each other.

    Neither approach to bedroom usage is “right,” but the other’s approach will feel foreign, even gut-level “wrong,” because one’s own approach feels so comfortable and correct. Feeling comfortable feels good, especially in one’s own home and with one’s partner. We do have the option, though, to look for areas of discomfort that we’re willing to adapt to and be flexible around on our end, recognizing that others may be trying/struggling to do the same for us.

    After all that, it can also help to explicitly recognize the positive side of the behaviors, and draw clear contrasts without judgment for new behaviors. Something (genuine) like: “I love how comfortable you all are together, and how you like to be together and encourage the kids to be independent around the house too. I’m enjoying learning about you and spending time with you. We all have things that we like different ways, and one thing I’ve realized is that my family always kept the bedroom aside as a “space for grown ups.” I know that would be new for the kids, but I think they’re quicker to adjust than I might be;). Could we brainstorm ideas for setting up different expectations for my room compared to other places they go? (If yes) Are there spaces at home or school that they know are only for grown ups? (If yes), Great, so I’d like to let them know that going into the bedroom at X, Y, and Z’s house is fine, but for some people like me, this room is more like the office, so let’s use office rules here instead.”

    The STATE process seems like a great way to gather and share this data, discuss differences openly, and see how a new family dynamic can take shape. Best of luck.

  5. Jordan Snedaker

    Great insights about two separate conversation that need to happen. Thanks for your insights Steve!

  6. Cappy

    Girl, strategise. Preparation is key. Tell him in advance, maybe a few hours before, by text even, that you need to speak with him later about how you feel about something and that when you do talk with him later, you need him to listen to you, not judge, fix, interrupt, minimise, deny, defend or excuse. That’s the first conversation. Then have the later second one ‘when x does x I feel x etc’ but also plant the seed for a third conversation, about resolution e.g. ‘thanks for listening, I’d like us to come up with a solution in the next 2 days’ or ‘I just needed to say that, can we just have a think about it for now and talk about a way forward next week’. I work in HR and sometimes have to talk to someone about their performance, conduct and sickness. It really helps in advance to say to the other person, we’re having a meeting in 3 parts, or a discussion in 3 parts. So strategise, be super clear in your own mind about each part and don’t get over emotional!

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