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About the Author:

Ron McMillan is a behavioral scientist and coauthor of four New York Times bestselling books: Crucial Conversations, Crucial Confrontations, Influencer and Change Anything.

Dear Crucial Skills,

My mother-in-law refuses to accept me as part of the family. She talks badly about me behind my back and even refuses to look at me when I walk into a room. For the eight years my husband and I have been together, she has never accepted me for who I am. The one time he tried to talk to her about the situation, she yelled at him, told him she would stay away from him, and hung up the phone. Now that my husband and I are expecting our first child, I would like all of this childish nonsense to stop. Please help!

Mentally Exhausted

Dear Exhausted,

Thank you for your question. Though this is already a difficult and painful situation, I feel I should begin with the bad news. If you do everything we tell you in our books, exactly the way we tell you and the other person does not want to dialogue, you won’t dialogue. Don’t you just hate that? The crucial conversations skills are not a way to compel or control others—they don’t work to manipulate or deceive. The other person still has a choice as to how they will respond to you and you cannot control them. So it may be that your mother-in-law will never respond to you in the way you desire. Sorry!

That said, often if we initiate a conversation using effective principles and skills and are consistent in our use of them over time, the other person will come around. Though the effective use of these principles and skills do not guarantee the outcome you desire, they increase the probability of mutually beneficial results.

There are a lot of things to work through to make the relationship with your mother-in-law work. She has been silent and withdrawn for a long time. It seems you are not clear on her reasons and what problems might need addressing. You also need to create clear expectations between you and your husband to make sure you are both on the same page. There’s some heavy lifting that needs to be done. But your toughest challenge will be beginning this crucial conversation in a way that engages your mother-in-law in dialogue, so you have the best chance of working things out.

Rather than hash through the wounds of the past, I would recommend focusing on the relationship you want going forward. The principles you want to utilize are Start with Heart, Mutual Purpose, and Mutual Respect.

Start with Heart. Get clear about what you really want. Let’s assume you want a respectful, caring relationship with your mother-in-law, and you want her to be involved in the life of your new child. Getting clear about your motives for having this crucial conversation helps you act on your most noble intentions. These good motives and intentions will guide what you say and do in a helpful way.

Build Mutual Respect. I would suggest you next build Mutual Respect by asking her permission to talk with her. This is best done in person. If that would be too difficult, you could do it over the phone, but your mother-in-law will not be able to see your non-verbal actions or your facial expressions in order to gauge your sincerity. If you talk over the phone, you will have to emphasize your real intent and check her intent frequently.

You might say something like this “As you know, we will be having a baby soon and I want to talk to you about our family. Would that be alright?” If she says “no” to your invitation, leave it open for your next conversation by saying something like “Okay. When you are ready to discuss this please let me know” and disengage. Give her some time before you try again.

Build Mutual Purpose. If she is open to the discussion or gives a vague reply, you are ready to continue the conversation. Build Mutual Purpose by sharing your good intentions. Recall what you “really want” and share it with her. Perhaps you could say “I really want you to be a part of my family and a part of my baby’s life. Also, I would like a respectful relationship between you and me. Is this something we can talk about?”

By proposing the Mutual Purpose of “being part of my family and part of my baby’s life” you give her an opportunity to consider whether that is what she really wants. Your demonstration of respect (inviting her into your family, disclosing that you want a relationship with her, and asking if she’s willing to talk about it) should soften her heart and lower her defenses.

This approach increases the likelihood of being able to talk about these difficult issues. If she rebukes your efforts, realize this is just your first effort to have this crucial conversation. Look for openings in the future and create opportunities to revisit the conversation. Remember to consistently look for Mutual Purpose and always show respect.

If she responds positively to your efforts and shows a willingness to discuss her role in your family, you have begun this crucial conversation on a firm, safe footing. You now have an opportunity to create a new relationship and open up a new, better chapter in your family’s story.

All the best,