Dear Dr Sadaqat,
I am concerned about a situation that I face almost daily at my home. My husband and son fight persistently on routine household activities and end up yelling at each other. For example, recently when they were deciding about who will check the main door locks, they ended up in a fight and my son shouted at his father saying that he will move out of the house. When I tried to intervene in the situation both of them got angry at me and as a result I avoided the situation and went to my room. In the search of solution to my problem I watched your relationship videos on YouTube and realized that both of them get hostile on trivial issues and try to win the argument. Their relationship is getting worse day by day and I want to help them in learning to communicate but I don’t know how.
I can understand that how difficult it is to act as third party between two loved ones who cannot communicate with each other respectfully. Your intentions to facilitate the conversation open a three sided battle that makes you to choose to remain quiet and walk away from the situation.
The best way to help your family is to have one-to-one conversations with your husband and your son about how they carry out themselves while handling difficult conversations. Your role here is not to facilitate their conversations. Rather, your role is to help them improve their conversations.
The key to holding effective conversations is to create common purpose and communicate with respect. These two conditions make it secure to have dialogue about tough things.
First, you should have a conversation with your husband. Begin by sharing the facts with him. For example, you might say, “I noticed when you spoke with Jamal yesterday about locking the main door, both of you got very angry and it turned into a fight.” By sharing the facts and avoiding blame, you minimize his defensiveness. You can also introduce the subject of your conversation with your husband without placing charge.
Let’s say your husband gets defensive and responds with, “It wasn’t my fault that it turned into a fight, its Jamal’s lousy attitude.” Now you have to make it safe for your husband to express his thoughts by sharing your good intentions and clarifying your purpose. Let’s say your husband’s name is Qaiser. You may say something like “Qaiser, I’m not blaming you or suggesting it’s your fault. I just want to figure out how to solve problems in a way that improves relationships in our family.” This skill, called “sharing your good intentions,” discloses what your motives are and identifies your purposes. It will also help your husband see that he is not under attack.
Then develop a common purpose by saying “What I want is the problems to be resolved”—like Jamal checking the main door locks before going to bed—in a way that is respectful. I want him to feel you respect him and I also want him to treat you with respect. Is that what you want too?
This purpose is likely one that he shares and desires also; here you’ve successfully established a common purpose. If you sense your husband is reluctant to try a different approach, share with him the consequences you believe will result if things don’t change.
“Qaiser, if things don’t improve between you and Jamal, I’m afraid there will be serious damage to your relationship that could last well into the future. He is getting to the age where he will be making some important decisions that might include leaving the home eventually. I’m worried that a stressed relationship might push him away and make him hesitant to reveal in us. That will make it difficult for us to be of any help to him at this crucial time.”
When he expresses a willingness to make things better, it is time to decide who does what by when. Tell him that it doesn’t mean you let things slip, it just means you will handle things with him in a calm and respectful way.
After getting his agreement to handle the conversation in a better way, keep a follow up and talk over how things are going. After successfully navigating this difficult conversation with your husband, have the same conversation with your son.
Conversations with family members about their behavior are tough to hold, but holding them and holding them well is vital to the well-being of you and your family.
Dr. Sadaqat Ali