Q: How do you convince a family member or friend to change when your relationship seems to be headed for a cliff?
A: You can’t change someone else. But you may be able to change your relationship. Here are three questions to ask yourself:
1. What’s my contribution?
When I transitioned from being a judge to a mediator, I remembered that every story has two sides. My new role was not to decide who’s right and wrong, but to help participants see each other’s side. You may feel wronged and totally innocent. Your contribution may have only been silence about your expectations or needs. Or expecting more than the other could give. Or ignoring signs of a pending problem. Were you afraid to engage in a tough conversation?
If you can recognize and name your contribution, however minimal, apologize to the other person for your part. Then pause. You may be surprised at the response. At least, this will start a conversation about repairing the breach.
2. What am I missing?
Are you making a negative assumption about someone’s behavior when you don’t have all the facts? Assumptions such as mind-reading, fortune-telling, prejudice (the “isms”), and “should-ing” can propel us to dumb and dangerous conclusions. A person who seems aloof or arrogant may be struggling with a health scare, family or money issues. Or the other may have made an untrue assumption about you.
To work with this question, make a list of everything you know to be true, and another list of what you don’t know. Might you have misunderstood something that seemed offensive? Be rigorous. Your “Don’t Know” list should contain every possible favorable or neutral explanation that might account for the person’s behavior. What might cause you to behave that way? As my pastor once said, “Everyone you meet is carrying an invisible bucket of tears.” Stay open to the thought that you may be wrong.
3. What’s my pay-off?
Psychologist Stephen Karpman describes a toxic triangle with three “players” – a Persecutor, a Victim, and a Rescuer. When a conflict involves three (say two siblings and a parent), they can get stuck, even if they change roles. They keep playing because each gets a hidden pay-off. The Persecutor thinks, “I’m right.” The Victim says, “I’m innocent.” The Rescuer says, “I’m good.” If this sounds familiar, just quit playing. Apologize if appropriate, forgive, and stop. It only takes one to stop and the game will end.
It’s not as hard as it seems to stop blaming and start collaborating. You can’t change the other, but you can change the relationship by changing yourself.