family conflict

Relationships are hard.

In my life, relationships have been the source of my greatest joy as well as my most heart-rending pain. Yet, as I understand the gospel, the only things we take with us when we die are our knowledge and our relationships. Both are of eternal importance.

It’s tough enough to work out our own salvation with fear and trembling, but the whole concept of Zion, sealed families, and becoming one in Christ is the practice of building and maintaining holy and eternal relationships. We work out our salvation with others, not against others or in spite of others. And so it seems to me that relationships are not only the purpose of exaltation; relationships are also the means of obtaining exaltation.

So where do we start? Relationships are the sum total of three components:

  1. Our interactions with each other
  2. Our thoughts about each other
  3. Our feelings for each other

We build and maintain our relationships one interaction and one conversation at a time. And our thoughts and feelings about our loved ones are often a direct result of the quality of those interactions. Consequently, not all conversations are equal.

Most of our interactions are routine, regular, and casual. We generally do okay at exchanging pleasantries, sharing information, agreeing on tasks, and chatting about movies and the weather. Where we stumble is when the nature of the interaction changes-when the stakes are high, opinions differ, and emotions run strong.

A high-stakes issue is one that is important to us, such as spending too much money or being treated with disrespect. Now, if both people in the relationship agree about the issue, then they’ve averted the problem. But what if they disagree? These two factors-high stakes and opposing opinions-almost always create the third element: strong emotions.

When these three elements are present, conversations turn from casual to crucial. And too often, in crucial conversations, reasonable, rational, and decent people suddenly become unreasonable, irrational, and just plain mean. We use words and actions that are violent; or we shut down, pull away, and withdraw (sometimes physically, always emotionally) from the other person.

At times of strong emotion, our physiology literally changes. The upper reasoning and logic centers of the brain shut down. The body directs blood flow to the large muscle groups, preparing for fight or flight. This mechanism is really handy when you’re in the jungle facing a tiger, but when you’re in a complex social interaction with someone you care about, it’s the worst mode possible! As you succumb to the natural man, your biology pushes you to either give in to the fight reflex, and become violent, or to give in to the flight reflex, and become silent. Relationships are a casualty of either choice.

Let’s look at an example. Father and son have just spent an entire afternoon having fun-good for the relationship, right? Then, they walk past the garage and Dad sees his tools scattered on the workbench. He explodes, “You know better than that! When you use the tools, you put them back where they go! You are so irresponsible! Get in there and put them away NOW!”

Which interaction had the strongest influence on the father/son relationship? The long afternoon of fun or the few moments of anger, labeling, and bullying? When Dad mishandled the crucial conversation about his son’s use of the tools, he violated mutual respect and damaged their relationship. Sure, his son loves to have a good time with Dad, but now he’ll hold back and protect a part of himself-the part that is sensitive, tender, and loving. He feels unsafe. Even while enjoying himself with Dad, he’ll wonder when Dad will hurt him next. This makes a loving, trusting, giving relationship very difficult and often creates deep resentment, fear, contention, and emotional separation.

These high stakes, emotional conversations are not just difficult or hard to hold; they are crucial to hold-crucial to solving problems, getting results, and building relationships. The way we conduct these crucial conversations determines whether our relationships are warm and loving or cold and full of fear. And from a gospel perspective, these are the conversations that either invite the Spirit into our relationships or block the Spirit entirely.

How do we yield to the enticements of the Spirit? How do we overcome the natural man? How do we handle these crucial conversations in effective and helpful ways?

Consider two very specific skills that can make a tremendous difference in our crucial conversations.

Stop. As soon as you recognize that you are in a crucial conversation, the first skill is to stop talking. Stop mid-sentence if necessary. How do you know when to stop? Emotion is the red flag. The instant you feel strong, negative emotions, you know you just stepped into a crucial conversation and the way you handle it is going to have a tremendous impact on the relationship. When you stop talking, you break the fight or flight reaction and buy yourself time to think things over before reacting in a hurtful way.

Once you’ve stopped yourself from going to either silence or violence, you’ve got to engage the brain to get yourself to behave appropriately. But how?

Ask yourself a question. Questions engage the brain. The brain recognizes that you are now dealing with intricate social issues and not physical threats. Questions also help the brain recall ways to solve the problem. There are many questions you could use to focus your brain during a crucial conversation. Questions that master communicators use are:

  • What do I really want?
  • What result am I after in the long run?
  • What relationship do I want in the long run?
  • What would the Savior do in this situation?

Questions like these cause us to think. If I’m angry and frustrated, what do I really want? Do I want to humiliate the other person? Hurt them emotionally? Be right? Save face? Or, do I want to solve a tough problem? Find a solution that works for both of us? Build a more trusting relationship? As we think through the answers to these questions, our brain engages and our emotions begin to dispel. We are choosing our response based on values, beliefs, and desired results instead of adrenaline.

If we add a prayer, “Lord, please help me know what to do and say,” we not only get control of the natural man, we invite the enticements of the Spirit and can access wisdom greater than our own.

In an ideal situation, when you can anticipate having a crucial conversation in advance, think through the issue and write the question down. Now you’re prepared. Your heart and motives are aligned with your values, goals, and beliefs.

This powerful principle is called “Start with Heart,” and it reminds us to get our heart right before we ever open our mouth in a crucial conversation.

Consider a final example. An executive vice president of a Fortune 500 company shared this with me the day after she learned these skills.

Driving home, she really wanted to use the skills, but wondered if she could. She walked into her home and past her 14 year old daughter’s bedroom. It was an absolute mess. She stood in the doorway and shouted, “Jennifer, get up here!” Jennifer intentionally walked up the stairs at an irritatingly slow pace. Her mom lit into her, “You promised to clean your room by the time I got home and it is a pig sty!”

Jennifer rolled her eyes and whined, “What’s the big deal? Just chill out!” That hooked mom and she began yelling out all the privileges Jennifer would lose over the next two weeks. When she stopped, Jennifer’s face was a mix of anger and hurt. Mom frantically thought, “The question, the question, what’s the question?” She grabbed it out of her memory. “What do I really want?”

Mom just stood there as her thoughts started coming. The first thought was, “I want a clean room, is that too much to ask?” But then she thought a little deeper, “What do I really want?” She answered herself, “I want Jennifer to clean her room and I want her to keep her commitments to me.” She paused a moment longer. “But what do I really want? I want Jennifer to keep her commitments to me, and clean her room, and I want a loving relationship with my daughter.” Mom felt the anger slip away. She realized yelling and threatening Jennifer would get the room clean, but at the cost of a loving relationship.

“Jennifer, come with me please,” Mom said softly. They went downstairs and sat on the couch. Mom took a breath and said, “Jennifer, I shouldn’t have yelled at you, that was disrespectful. I’m sorry.” She paused, then started over, “Honey, you made a commitment to me you didn’t keep…”

Mom proceeded to have a crucial conversation with her daughter about commitments and consequences. It was a calm, respectful conversation. And at the end, still with a bit of attitude, Jennifer went upstairs and cleaned her room, but this time it was not at the expense of loving or trusting her mother.


Ron McMillan is the co-author of the New York Times best-seller Crucial Conversations