Critical Conversations in the Real World: Marriage, Divorce, and the Resilient Life

After 10 years at Crucial Learning, I discovered a secret: Crucial Conversations skills don’t always work. At least, they don’t always work the way we think they should.

At Crucial Learning, we share these things called mission moments. It’s one way we encourage each other and share successes.  A mission moment is an inspiring, heartfelt story about the impact our ideas are having on the world. It’s a time where we feel inspired, proud, humbled, grateful, and energised to be a part of Crucial Learning.

But, as I recently shared my mission moment with my colleagues, I felt none of those things. Instead, I felt small, inadequate, and ashamed. In my mind, I didn’t deserve to be there. I didn’t measure up to the power of skills I write, teach, and speak about.

See, I was going through a divorce. What right did I have to teach Crucial Conversations skills when they couldn’t even save my marriage?

Even though these skills have the power to change lives, they don’t always work the way we think they should.

But they still work. These skills bring you to a solution, even if it’s not the solution you were originally hoping for.

Work on YOU First

To best understand how these skills work, we need to clarify some of our Crucial Conversations basics.

Work on me first does not mean (or even imply) work on the other person second. It means work on me first. Work on me second. Then work on me a little more.

It’s not that we start with ourselves before we move to working on other people. But, we work on ourselves because we are the only person we can change.

I’ve learned this first hand. Once upon a time in the summer of 2008, I married Clayton and his four wonderful adolescent children. As many of you know, blended families are not for the weak of heart. But I was determined that despite the difficulties, I would not fail in this relationship.

I threw myself into my marriage and my new family with hope, exuberance, and so much love. I went to every band concert and swim meet. I did homework assignments and Eagle Scout projects.

And I stepped up to crucial conversations — lots of them.

Then, after years of working, struggling, talking, crying, and praying, it all came to an end. I filed for divorce.

This isn’t what we usually mean when we talk about mission moments at VitalSmarts. Not many people are inspired by stories like this — stories like mine. But maybe we should be. Because I’ve learned that the grace of what we teach only becomes apparent when we falter.

What Do You Really Want?

Clayton and I struggled valiantly to dialogue through our divorce. We wanted to hash it all out on our own and come to an agreement without courts, mediation, or judges.

But, I realised that focusing on what I really wanted — for me, for our relationship, for our family — wasn’t enough.

In reality, what I really wanted wasn’t going to happen. The dreams I had for marriage and family were not connected to my actual marriage and husband.

What Do You Really Want TO BE?

As I realised that what I wanted wasn’t possible, I changed my focus. Instead of asking, “What do I really want?”, I asked, “What do I really want to be?”

Generous. Kind. Brave. Strong.

So, as I embarked upon the divorce process, I focused on developing these attributes. Rather than focusing on the situation I’d hoped for, I focused on being the generous, kind, brave, strong woman I wanted to become (for myself and my seven children).

I wanted to look back on this time of incredible heartache, stress, and vulnerability, and I know I had been the very best version of myself.

This meant confronting a deep sense of personal and spiritual failure. And for me, this sense of failure also glowed with a sheen of hypocrisy.

I spent 10 years telling people that Crucial Conversations can improve your results and relationships. It’s painful to think back on presentations where I literally said, “Crucial conversations can help save your marriage.” Yet, it didn’t save mine.

Yet, I knew a generous, kind, brave, strong woman would not run from the shame of hypocrisy and failure. This woman would embrace vulnerability and say, “Crucial Conversations didn’t save my marriage. Crucial Conversations saved my divorce.”

How Crucial Conversations Saved My Divorce

I brought my best self and my best skills to our conversations — and it worked. Clayton and I were able to come to an agreement without courts, mediation, or judges.

Crucial Conversation skills haven’t given me a perfect life. But they have given me a resilient life. For me a resilient life looks like this:

Getting out with my children and introducing them to the joys of the natural world…

Making sugar cookies, taking pony rides, and painting…

Standing with my son — who despite the fact I divorced his dad is still my son —  as he graduates from college…

And standing with my family (including my ex-husband) and being with truly happy as I celebrated a new marriage…. even though mine was ending.

This is my family. I’ve done the hard and joyous work of building this family one crucial conversation at a time. That is my real mission moment.

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