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February 22, 2006
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    "A point of view can be a dangerous luxury when
    substituted for insight and understanding."
    Marshall McLuhan

    Abusive Friend

    About the Author

    Joseph Grenny is coauthor of the New York Times bestseller, Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High.more

    Dear Authors,

    I desperately need guidance with a crucial conversation. 

    I have a long-time friend who has a lot of "ups and downs" in her life. I'm the shoulder that she cries on and the sounding board when she's angry with her husband. Unfortunately, she also likes to verbally attack me about once every three to four months, often for things over which I have no control. She thinks that everyone is out to get her, to the point of almost being paranoid.  It seems she feels "safe" enough in our relationship to unload her fury on me. I've attempted to talk to her after past attacks, and have asked her to talk to me before blowing up, hoping to diffuse the situation. She claims that she's "just being honest" and claims that I'm too sensitive. Nothing changes and the attacks continue. 

    With the last blow up, I had to put boundaries in place.  I firmly told her that I would not tolerate her erratic behavior and that friends do not treat each other like that.  That was about two months ago and we haven't spoken since.  I feel like I've abandoned her, but had to do something to protect myself. I feel there should either be closure or a conversation to open up the possibility of the relationship being reestablished. My pride is nudging me to keep quiet, but my heart is saying that I should be the person to clear the air.  Any thoughts or suggestions would be greatly appreciated!

    Dumped On



    Dear Dumped On,

    I’m impressed that your heart inclines you to be humble and caring. Not a bad heart. In fact, it’s evidence of a wonderful one.

    I have three pieces of advice for you—I’m hoping at least two out of three are useful.

    My first advice is a shot in the dark that may be totally without merit. But I would be remiss if I didn’t offer it.  My first advice is that you examine your “story” about your relationship with your friend. Whenever I hear myself or others offering extreme characterizations of the causes of a relationship problem, I smell a “Clever Story”—one that is used to justify or cover the person’s own contribution to the problem. In your letter you make statements like “She thinks that everyone is out to get her” and “she also likes to verbally attack me.” These make your friend out to be a pretty out-of-control villain. While you characterize yourself as having taken reasonable steps to set some boundaries which she writes off as indicating you’re “too sensitive.”

    Now, please don’t misunderstand me. You may be precisely accurate in describing the causes of your current predicament. As a friend who has no view into what really happened, I am just encouraging you to see if any of your behavior has also contributed. From your story, it sounds as though you have not. And that is sometimes a warning sign that your story is keeping you from working on your own role in the issue.

    My second piece of advice is that you clarify what you really want. You have known this woman for a long time, and her behavior has been quite consistent. While you may be able to influence her behavior a bit (I’ll get to that in the third piece of advice), she is not likely to change her basic habits. If becoming suspicious and punishing is part of who she is, then you must ask yourself if you’re willing to accept this as the price of having an ongoing relationship. Most people are almost blind to their own motives when having a crucial conversation. We think we want to mend fences when what we really want is to give the other person a chance to admit that he or she was wrong when we stopped talking. We think we want to renew the relationship, but what we really want is for the other person to transform into our ideal friend. How can you tell what you really want? By honestly considering what is likely to disappoint you in or after this conversation.! If the other person failing to own up to his or her mistakes or failing to change would be disappointing, then your motive is not to restore the relationship. Be sure before opening your mouth that you know why you’re opening it. Then choose accordingly whether or not to engage in dialogue.

    Finally, let’s imagine you’ve elected to speak to her. Let’s say you’ve decided you would like a relationship, but only on the terms that she stop abusing you. Then your big challenge in making it safe will be to communicate this term as a natural consequence and not as a threat. How she hears this boundary will make all the difference in the world. Here’s an example of how not to do it:

    “I’d like to reconnect with you but only if you’re going to stop dumping on me when you get stressed out. If that happens again I won’t spend time with you anymore.”

    Notice the phrasing here? Here you’re telling her if she does A then you’ll do B. It sounds like tit for tat. This will cause her to feel threatened and manipulated. Instead, help her see how your withdrawal is a natural consequence of her behavior. For example:

    “In the past when you’ve raised your voice to me and told me you thought I was disloyal, I found myself feeling less interested in our relationship. I noticed I was less inclined to make contact with you as it seemed like it might just put me in another unpleasant situation.

    “I want you to know I very much want our friendship to continue. But even more important is me taking care of myself by not putting myself in circumstances like that again. I would like your commitment that when you’re frustrated with me it won’t come out in those ways again. If you can’t commit to that, or that seems unreasonable, then I need to decide if I am willing to risk that happening again. And I think I won’t.”

    As you lay out these consequences for her, I’d encourage you to solicit feedback as well about how you might be contributing to the problem. “Work on Me First” is a great way to create safety and gather important information that puts you in control of your life.

    Best of luck!

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