Mom, Dad, I Want Out!

By Douglas Stone / September / October 1999
November 7th, 2007

So your son or daughter made it to campus. Now the worrying begins. One of these days you may have the type of difficult conversation that generations of parents have had before you, though the triggers seem to change with every decade: "I'm quitting the track team." "I've decided to switch my concentration from pre-med to astrology." "I'm dropping out to open a chain of body-piercing shops." "I'm dropping out, period."

As a Harvard Law School lecturer over the past ten years and associate director of the Harvard Negotiation Project, I have come to understand that the research done on successful negotiations - whether between nations or between labor and management - has important lessons for the kind of personal "negotiating" we must all undertake in our daily lives. Whether it's asking for a raise, ending a relationship, giving a critical performance review, or talking frankly to a child, all of us face the prospect of conversations we dread and, whenever possible, avoid.

Every parent wants to know: are there ways to make such difficult conversations less frustrating? Are there guidelines, based on experience, that steer such conversations toward more satisfying resolutions? I think so. Here are some tips based on the work I've done with Bruce Patton and Sheila Heen, my colleagues at the Harvard Negotiation Project. Perhaps they'll make the college years a little easier on your family.

Every difficult conversation is really three. The first is the What Happened? Conversation, which is really a disagreement about what happened or what should have happened. Who's right, who meant what, and who's to blame? The second is the Feelings Conversation that helps shape the course of a difficult exchange, even though these feelings may not be explicitly expressed. Are my feelings valid? Should I acknowledge or deny them, put them on the table or check them at the door? Finally comes the Identity Conversation, which is the internal debate we have with ourselves about whether the situation we are facing means we are competent or incompetent, a good person or bad, worthy of love or unlovable. The impact of the conversation on our self-esteem determines in large part whether we feel balanced during the exchange, or whether we feel off-center or anxious. Managing all three of these conversations simultaneously may seem hard, but it's easier than facing the consequences of engaging in difficult dialogues blindly.

So let's say your son or daughter, the pride of the family, has decided to do something that to you feels risky, unwise, or just plain stupid. You do what anyone would: give your child advice.

What's wrong with that? Only one thing: your child seems so rarely to follow it. This is not because your advice is no good. It's because no one takes advice until he or she feels understood. And that only makes sense. Why should we take advice from someone who doesn't really know what our life and choices look like?

So here's my advice: Listen first. Ask questions, working to understand the situation from your child's point of view. Imagine for a moment that your son phones to say he's leaving school to join a band. You reach deep inside yourself and immediately come up with this pearl of wisdom: "Nooo!!!!" The next sound you hear is a dial tone.

Here's a better response: "Wow. To be honest, that's upsetting to me, but we'll talk about that in a moment. It sounds like joining this band is really important to you. Tell me more about what the band means to you, why you feel it's the right decision." This reply may seem far-fetched, but it's meant to accomplish three things. First, it moves the What Happened? Conversation away from fruitless argument and toward the goal of understanding. This kind of response will help you into your son's world. It will help explain why a decision that makes no sense to you seems to make sense to him.

Second, it creates an opening in which to begin the Feelings Conversation. "I'm really confused about what I want to do," your son might say. Or: "I feel like a failure at engineering, and I need to feel like I'm good at something." Or: "Playing music is what I love to do."

Third, this reply helps keep the Identity Conversation positive. It signals to your son that you're taking him seriously, that you're treating him like the adult he is. And by taking the time to view the situation from your son's perspective, you encourage him to keep a more open mind about your advice. Once he feels understood, your advice will carry more weight.

Now if I were you reading this piece, I might think, "Poppycock. I have more experience, and therefore more perspective, than my kid does. I can see clearly that he'll be throwing his life away. Why should I pretend otherwise?" That's a reasonable thought to have. (See, I'm listening to you. Now you're more likely to take my advice). I am not suggesting that you must agree with your son's decision. You don't have to say, "Whether you finish school or join a band is all the same to me. I've given you roots, now I'm giving you wings." It's not all the same to you, and it would be dishonest for you to pretend it is. You can hold on to the full force of your view and still seek to understand your son's.

In addition to listening and trying to understand your child's world, you must let him or her into your world. Too often we imagine our kids will respect us more, listen to us more, if we seem perfect, if it appears that we never struggled or took a wrong turn.

The opposite is true. Speaking candidly about your own mistakes gives meaning and context to your advice. Instead of saying, "Get your law degree so you'll have something to fall back on," give your son or daughter a sense of what's behind that advice. It's more effective to say, "When you talk about going into theater, I feel mixed. On the one hand, that was something I always dreamed about doing, and part of me feels proud and excited for you. On the other hand, it fills me with anxiety. You remember when we moved when you were five? We moved because I was out of a job, and that was a tough time for us. I worry about your having to go through the same or worse." Now you're into a meaningful - though still difficult - conversation. Your child will know that your feelings of anxiety and even anger coexist with affection and love.

Finally, as you face difficult conversations with your college-aged children, remember one thing: just because you're confused doesn't mean you can't be clear. Too often parents use their own lack of certainty about the right thing to do as an excuse for not saying anything. So, for example, a parent might be thinking, "Amy seems to be having trouble making friends, but it's her freshman year, and we want to give her space to work things out herself. So I just don't know what to do." The confused parent chooses not to raise the issue with Amy, hoping that Amy will raise it herself.

For her part, Amy may be thinking, "I have the greatest parents. They're giving me space to work out my own problems." Or she may be thinking, "I wish I could talk to my parents about this. I wish they showed more interest in how I'm doing." The point is that Amy's parents don't know which she's feeling, and that's why they're confused about how to handle the situation. My advice to Amy's parents? Talk about exactly this dilemma with Amy. Be clear that you aren't clear about how to handle the situation. Amy's parents might say: "We're unsure about how to handle some things. We want you to know that we're always here for you any time you need to talk about anything. At the same time, we don't want to be overbearing, and we want to respect your privacy. So we just aren't sure about whether to raise concerns we might have along the way. Do you have any thoughts or advice for us about this?"

Of course, most difficult conversations are not, in actuality, a single heart-to-heart talk. They are a series of exchanges and explorations that happen over time. Keep at it. Even if you cannot accept your child's decision to spend winter break traveling with a boyfriend or girlfriend, keep the phone lines clear. Remember the lessons you neglected to learn until your own experience succeeded at burning them into your consciousness. When Commencement rolls around, you'll be glad you did.

Douglas Stone is associate director of the Harvard Negotiation Project, coauthor of Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most (Viking Press), and a partner in Difficult Conversations Inc., a Cambridge, Massachusetts-based consulting firm. He can be reached at

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September / October 1999