Crucial Conversations with a Defensive Spouse


Dear Joseph,

My wife and I have a communication issue. We don’t talk enough about problems. Our conversation never lasts longer than forty-five seconds. This pattern has left a lot of issues unresolved that I feel are detrimental to the long-term health of our family. As soon as there is some indication of responsibility or accountability on her part—a behavior change she needs to make or a promise she broke—she responds with something like “Oh come on!” or “I can’t right now!” or, “Why do you always bring that up?” At this point, the conversation escalates and I back off.

How can I hold a safe space when this happens and ensure that we actually resolve something? What else can I do to create healthy communication practices when I can’t even get past the first forty-five seconds?

Signed,
Got a Minute?

Dear Got a Minute,

I can sense your frustration—and even despair. You crave the opportunity to get closure on concerns that are important to you and feel powerless to engage your wife sufficiently to do so. I’ve felt similarly stymied in cherished relationships in my life. Here are some reflections from those difficult times.

1. Work on me first. First, I would invite you to consider your own behavior. Look courageously for habits or incidents where your behavior might have given her cause to feel unsafe, disrespected, or even despairing about communicating with you. If appropriate, you might even make this a focused topic of conversation with her. Perhaps beginning with, “I’ve been thinking about how I complain that you won’t stay in conversation with me about issues that are important to me. I’ve been thinking about ways I have brought that frustration on myself. I want to learn how to make our conversations work for you. I have recognized several things I do that I believe are hurtful to you. If you are willing, I’d like to ask you to add to my list. Could we talk about that sometime?”

2. Talk about talking. Having examined and owned your part, ask for an opportunity to talk about how both of you talk. Ask for permission to share things she could do to make it easier for you to discuss sensitive issues. Frame the conversation as a way of coming to agreement on ground rules for how, when, and where you’ll deal with topics that are difficult for both of you. The ground rule of this conversation is that both of you are “right.” The goal is not to agree on needs but to validate any need and ground rule the other person wants. Don’t criticize hers. Similarly, assert your own. Stand up for yourself in expressing your needs and the ground rules that will help you assure them. For example, if you struggle to share your concerns without being interrupted, you might ask for a ground rule that says, “We won’t interrupt each other—even if we disagree with what the other is saying. We will hear each other out before responding.”

3. Give her a reason to want to. Crucial conversations only work when there is a Mutual Purpose. In your question, you articulate how communication failures are affecting you. You make no mention of how they might be affecting her. Do your best to empathize deeply with what is and isn’t working for her in the relationship. Frame the request to talk in terms that sincerely appeal to her needs as well. At some level, her choice to limit her communication with you at times is rational. It is accomplishing some purpose for her. Clearly, it also has downsides—but there must be an upside. How can you present a request for communication that is more appealing than what her limits are getting her? For example, “I know at times you feel I am insensitive and unaware of your needs. I want to do better at that. I believe if I can find a way to communicate better with you, that would help. Can we take some time to talk about what is and isn’t working in our communication? My hope is that this will help me be more connected with you and be a better husband—and it will also help me feel heard and cared about as well.”

4. Influence with your ears. The best way to help her feel safe, and feel as though conversation can actually serve her needs, is to listen. Hold yourself accountable to validating everything you hear from her, and confirming you have heard it well, before you share anything. If she shares very little, validate what she does share and reassure her you are committed to offering her more safety in the future than she has experienced in the past. As Stephen Covey said, “You can’t talk your way out of problems you behave yourself into.” Be willing to demonstrate your sincerity until she believes it.

I hope some of these suggestions are useful to you. Communication is life. It is the only vehicle we have for connecting meaningfully with others. I wish you the best as you improve yours.

Warmly,
Joseph

Joseph Grenny

Joseph Grenny is a New York Times bestselling author, keynote speaker, and leading social scientist for business performance. For thirty years, Joseph has delivered engaging keynotes at major conferences including the HSM World Business Forum at Radio City Music Hall. Joseph’s work has been translated into twenty-eight languages, is available in thirty-six countries, and has generated results for three hundred of the Fortune 500.