#059: What I Learned About Leadership from a Fight with My Wife [Podcast]

My wife, Gail, and I have been married for thirty-five years. She is my lover, my best friend, and my coach. But a few months ago we had a doozy of a fight.

Young couple mad at each other home

Photo courtesy of ©iStockphoto.com/[photographer]

As I was reflecting on that experience, I thought to myself, How can we avoid slipping into this same conflict in the future?

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I want to share five lessons I jotted down from that experience. I believe they apply in any situation—even work—where you are trying to resolve a conflict.

  1. Clarify our expectations up front.
  2. Assume the best about each other.
  3. Affirm the priority of the relationship.
  4. De-personalize the problem.
  5. Listen more than you talk.

What does a fight with my wife have to do with leadership? Well, as it turns out, everything. If you can’t lead yourself, you can’t lead others. And if you can’t learn to manage conflict with those closest to you, you can’t possibly expect to manage it with those who have less of a stake in the outcome.

Listener Questions

  1. Amanda Vosloh asked, “If and when is it appropriate for married couples working in the same field to market and promote themselves together?”
  2. Charles Pobee-Mensah asked, “How do you view a husband’s role as different from that of a wife in a marriage?”
  3. Kevin Bemel asked, “What do you see as the differences between leading a family and leading a business?”
  4. Steve Spillman asked, “How do you and Gail discuss and perhaps disagree about a business matter without it affecting your personal relationship?”

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Episode Resources

In this episode I mentioned several resources, including:

Show Transcript

You can download a complete, word-for-word transcript of this episode herecourtesy of Ginger Schell, a professional transcriptionist, who handles all my transcription needs.

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  • http://thewhitecollarlife.com/ Jake Bauer

    Great tips, Michael. I find that most conflicts at work are directly caused by mis-aligned expectations. Both parties think they’re doing what the other wants, but they are off the mark. Whenever someone falls short of my expectations, that needs to be the very first step. Make sure they know what those expectations are. Many times they’ll say, “Oh, I had no idea. No problem.”

    • http://michaelhyatt.com/ Michael Hyatt

      The expectations thing is huge, isn’t it?

    • rabbimoffic

      This is so true in parenting as well. It’s so easy to get upset with our kids if they do something wrong, and then we often realize they did not know what was expected.

      • http://www.MicheleCushatt.com/ Michele Cushatt

        Absolutely true. Wish I would’ve learned this years ago!

    • http://sukofamily.org/ Caleb

      I think you’re right on Jake and the other side of the coin is stating what you perceive the expectations to be to those higher up because they may not always express their expectations for us either.

      • http://thewhitecollarlife.com/ Jake Bauer

        Great point. It goes both ways.

  • Peter G

    Although the maxim that it is better to be kind then to be right certainly constitutes the highest stage of personal enlightenment, one must be careful not to come across as overbearing by rubbing one’s enlightenment into the other person’s face by communicating, via veiled insinuation and non-verbal signals, that “Of course I’m right, and I know it, but because I’m the enlightened one between the two of us, for the sake of resolving this conflict I’ll set aside the fact that I’m right.”

    Listen more than you talk.

    Good advice, but if both combatants in a argument adhere to this principle, it seems an arithmetic paradox will arise.

  • http://JonDHarrison.com/ Jonathan Harrison

    Some of my best lessons in life have been byproducts of “heated discussions” with my wife. Love and Respect is amazing – combined with the book Crucial Conversations, these ideas have revolutionized my strategy to dialogue with my wife. Many approaches require both parties to be willing to participate.
    In fact, until I combined Crucial Conversations with Love & Respect, my wife would often call me out on “Just saying that because Dr. Eggerichs said to.”
    Thank you for sharing personal stories like this, it really is an encouragement.

  • http://jeremymccommons.com/ Jeremy McCommons

    Great advice in how to better handle conflicts! I definitely find that when I de-personalize the problem it eliminates defensive responses and allows the real issues to shine through without distraction. I think this is also related to another lesson I would add: Do not lead with your emotions. When we allow our emotions to lead our conflicts and confrontations we become unable to communicate clearly and effectively and rationale tends to disappear. I try to approach these situations with the mindset of problem solving rather than being right. Thanks for the great post!

    • http://JonDHarrison.com/ Jonathan Harrison

      Great point Jeremy! The model that helped me better understand this idea is:
      Thoughts/beliefs influence -> Emotions influence -> Behaviors.
      Guard your thoughs (by assuming the best) and defuse the negative emotions, making it easier to de-personalize and listen.

    • http://michaelhyatt.com/ Michael Hyatt

      Great point, Jeremy. Thanks.

  • http://theoldadam.wordpress.com/ Steve Martin

    I too, have learned a lot about leadership from fighting with my wife.

    Here it is;

    ‘She’s the boss’

  • Cecile

    Excellent podcast! Especially the tips about misaligned expectations.

    • http://www.MicheleCushatt.com/ Michele Cushatt

      Expectations are huge!

  • guest

    re: Kevin Bemel’s question: a family and a business both need organization and systems to run efficiently, so you don’t get bogged down in home repairs/chores/errands and wind up neglecting your relationships. However, your wife and your children are not your employees, customers or direct reports. Your spouse doesn’t have to take orders from you, or vice versa. It’s a collaboration, not a chain of command. Likewise, they aren’t your customers. They aren’t always right, but they also deserve better than a “canned response” to their complaints.

  • http://quantiple.com/ Steve Tonkin

    I appreciate your first point about “clarifying expectations”. From a leadership standpoint, not setting appropriate expectations and properly communicating them always seems to be one of the core problems.

    Regarding marriage, lowering general expectations and adorning your spouse with unconditional love is always a winning strategy. I often ask people who are experiencing marriage difficulties less about what they expect out of their marriage, but rather what they are willing to give to their marriage.

    • http://JonDHarrison.com/ Jonathan Harrison

      The difference between expectations & reality…it’s never fun to be on either side. Right on Steve – love does cover a multitude of….anything.

    • Jim Martin

      You make a good point, Steve, regarding marriage. Lowering expectations and loving one’s spouse can sure make a difference in both the tone and the outcome of a conversation.

  • http://TheVoiceofJobseekers.com Mark Anthony Dyson

    Love the episode Michael. My wife and I have been married 22 years, and one big lesson I learned is what I heard years before we were married. That is, “…diffusing the bomb before it goes off.” I admit I am not perfect at it but conflict often reveals itself was before the battle. The tone of voice or the lack of other engagement such as, fun conversations or too much space are signs of unaddressed issues. When we learned to detect them regularly (not perfectly) our communication grew substantially. She is better at it than I but we learned together and share it with other married couples. Thanks again, and my wife is now a regular listener as well.

    • http://www.MicheleCushatt.com/ Michele Cushatt

      Great point, Mark. We’ve learned that a busy schedule and exhaustion are nearly always the precursor to conflict. If we can recognize it ahead of time, we then can offer each other a bigger cushion of grace.

  • Charles Pobee-Mensah

    Thanks for answering my question, Michael. As for Kevin’s question, I think that the biggest difference between leading a family and leading a business is that you don’t get to pick the people in the family and you can’t really kick anyone out. This makes it especially challenging, but also especially rewarding.

    • http://michaelhyatt.com/ Michael Hyatt

      Agreed. Thanks for the clarification. That helps. In some ways, it is more like working in a non-profit where you have volunteers. It’s much more difficult to fire them!

    • rabbimoffic

      The fact that we can’t really kick anyone out also makes the relationships much more important. As Michael discussed in the Q and A, it’s easy to get task-focused and lose sight of the relationships, which are critical in work and family.

  • http://personalsuccesstoday.com/ John Richardson

    One of the key things for me, that I had to learn the hard way, is that words like Stupid, Idiot, and Dummy are very harmful and detrimental to a personal relationship as well as a business one. When you work with leaders that use them regularly, you really see how demotivating they are.

  • http://kimanziconstable.com/ kimanzi constable

    Great episode and questions Michael. As you mentioned, leading at home has taught me so much about leading outside of the home. I have really learned the importance of listening as a leader by really listening to my wife.

  • John Meese

    Great advice, Dcn. Michael. I was pleased to see you’d recommended “Love & Respect” so I went straight to Amazon to order a copy! I have “The Language of Love & Respect,” a practical application book by the same author that I’ve learned a lot from, and I’ve been meaning to read the source text for a while.

  • http://propreacher.com/ Brandon

    The number one thing I have learned from marriage. I’m not always right. In fact, I’m usually wrong, even when right. :)

    • Jim Martin

      I can relate to that lesson learned Brandon. There have been times when I have argued with my wife regarding an issue only to realize about halfway in the conversation that I am wrong. I can remember a few occasions in which I actually argued what I knew to be wrong but I had already committed. Not good. File under “dumb.”

  • Kevin Ivey

    Good stuff Michael, shared on both my FB pages, and LinkedIn.

  • http://www.seannisil.com/ Sean Nisil

    It all starts with you and the relationships that are closest to you. Like you said, your marriage has everything to do with your leadership. If you can’t lead/love/serve within the context of your most important relationship, then there’s no way you will be leading at full capacity in other relationships or roles.

    On a side note Michael, did Gail give you the thumbs up for this post’s title before it got published? :)

    • http://michaelhyatt.com/ Michael Hyatt

      Yep! She approved all the content. (I didn’t want another conflict!)

      • http://www.MicheleCushatt.com/ Michele Cushatt

        Haha. Well said.

  • deandeguara

    Thats one of the best podcasts I’ve heard. Very timely for me personally.Thank you!

    • http://michaelhyatt.com/ Michael Hyatt

      Thanks, Dean. I appreciate that.

  • http://www.smartselfdevelopmentplan.com/ Jantje

    Thank you for this, Michael! Resolving a conflict often starts from within. Leading yourself becomes especially valid for me, since I launched my own business. You can have inner conflicts, conflicts with partners, suppliers etc. Bottomline for me is to be as objective as possible versus the issue/problem.

  • Richard Thomas

    Great podcast, and thank you.
    I like the saying, ‘Reflect and Respond, Don’t React and Regret.’

    • http://www.MicheleCushatt.com/ Michele Cushatt

      Agreed. So, so good. (BTW, Michael, that’s pinnable!)

  • http://www.MicheleCushatt.com/ Michele Cushatt

    This was such a great podcast, Michael! One of the best lessons I’ve learned about leadership from my marriage is the potential for powerful collaboration and deeper relationship if we’re willing to push through the tough stuff. If I can capture a vision for what’s possible on the other side, I’m more willing to stay engaged during difficult seasons/conversations.

  • Kevin S. Bemel

    Michael, thank you for responding to my question. Perhaps a few examples will clarify my question. As you point out, in a business, while relationships are important, in the final analysis if the business is not satisfying its customers and making a profit it will close. With a family, the relationships are its reason for existing. So when dealing with a relationship issue in a business if it cannot be resolved the relationship can be terminated, probably without long-term harm to the business. However, you cannot fire your children or parents and even with your spouse, while divorce may be an option, doing so fundamentally changes the family.
    Next, unlike with a business where the values of an enterprise will be overlaid on those who work for it, in a family inculcation of values, especially to children, is central to it function.
    Finally, in a business the leader gets to make the decisions. One may get delegated but that too is the leader’s choice. It seems to me in a family this kind of top down model is inappropriate in many, perhaps most, instances.
    In these three cases because the stakes and dynamics are different it seems to me the way leadership is exercised needs to be different too.
    By the way, if you are in Southern California and would like to tour a submarine or aircraft carrier it would be my pleasure to arrange it.

    • http://michaelhyatt.com/ Michael Hyatt

      Thanks, Kevin. You make some great observations. I appreciate you clarifying your thinking.
      Thanks also for the invitation to tour an aircraft carrier or submarine. That would be cool!

    • Josh Spurlock

      Without a doubt leading a family is more difficult, and more important.

      Being applauded for success in business with wreckage of a family in it’s wake is not real success at all.

      Present me with two successful execs, one whose been divorced a couple times and is estranged from his kids and another whose spouse is madly in love with him or her and whose kids know they are priority in their parent’s life and I’ll pick the latter hands down.

      It takes relational IQ, patience, and endurance to lead a family well. These traits make a business leader successful as well.

      Josh Spurlock, MA, LPC
      Director of The Relationship Center
      Marriage Counselor and Business Consultant

      • Kevin S. Bemel

        This issue is particularly problematic in the military where people are used to a command structure at work then go home and use the same technique there. It breeds a great deal of resentment. Yet for the service member it can be very difficult making the transition in styles every evening. It is even more difficult when returning from a deployment of six to eighteen months and having been immersed in a command style of leadership for so long.

  • http://sukofamily.org/ Caleb

    The biggest lesson I’ve learned from my marriage about leadership is that you have to be in it for the long haul and when you are really committed things will generally get better with time.

  • Josh Spurlock

    True success outside the home is built on a foundation of success at home. If your spouse can’t trust you and you can’t resolve conflict with those you are most responsible to, it’s not a good indicator for the rest of your life.

    Likewise, figuring out how to WIN at home will equip you with essential tools for WINNING in every other arena of life.

    Josh Spurlock, MA, LPC
    Director of The Relationship Center
    Marriage Counselor and Sex Therapist

  • Clint Pagan

    I have began to practice in my short time being married that it is much better to take an overview at the end of the day of both my spouse and my feelings through out the day. This allows for things come out now instead of later. I have utilized this in my business as well. When my team is feeling “off beat” or something happened to cause a wedge between us. We have built a report that allows my team to express their frustrations at the end of each meeting. I have found that this keeps both parties happy. I get insight on my team and how they feel on a grass roots level and my team gets to express their desires.

    Thank you for all of your teachings and wisdom


  • Kathleen

    When my husband and I get into a doozy, I first work hard on soothing myself some way. Usually it’s by doing to deep breathing and focusing on loving thoughts (other than my husband–ha ha). It takes two to tango, and this way one of us is on a more level ground. This allows us to get back to LOVE in a much shorter time.

    Everyone you know gets “triggered” occasionally and if you can stay in some kind of loving state, healing and resolution is right around the corner. (Or at least less than 24 hours away. It takes some time for men’s energy to dissipate.) This is true for business associates, kids, parents, friends, acquaintances, and lovers.

    By focusing on this, it doesn’t even matter if the expectations were off.

    The POWER is in the RECOVERY.

    Getting back to LOVE is always the ANSWER.

  • Gretchen

    2 things I’d like to add about leadership in marriage. #1- In my mind, marriage is a Partnership. If you were in a business partnership, you’d likely play to each other’s strengths and no one person would lead. So the partner who does something well will do that thing most of the time in the marriage but also keep the other partner informed.
    #2- Your partner is an individual person and NOT an extension of you and what you want. You both should take care of helping facilitate the life that you each want. It’s like trying to walk in the rain under one umbrella but it’s well worth it.

  • Michael Randall

    Hey Michael –

    Thanks taking the time to share with all of us. I have an interesting response the the question from you podcast, as I am not yet married. However, I have made several decisions on the topic of marriage, and I’d like to share my thoughts to gain your perspective.

    I am a single, 24 year old young professional. I’ve made the decision not to date or pursue an intimate commitment because of my other goals and priorities. Part of me does not want the distraction away from my pursuit, but primarily my goal is to lay a foundation for my future family, wife, and kids. I aim to be the leader and provider of my future family, and so most of what I do now is to prepare myself to be in that position.

    In answer to your question, two things I’ve learned over the past few years that I feel relate to leadership are:

    1.) the value of delayed gratification – I think this has a variable meaning to everyone, but delaying gratification for me means that my wife and kids will have an incredibly peaceful life(as far as I’m concerned), and that is worth every second of hard work that I put in now

    2.) the value of integrity in relationships – I’ve distanced some friendships that weren’t beneficial to me or my goals, and in some cases, it caused a bit of animosity. However, in most cases, it created a level of respect that was not present in that relationship before, and we are better friends now that we spend less time together. I took to heart the value that honesty, coupled with the character to do the right thing(for my future family), plays in all relationships.

    Michael – do you have any feedback for young, single guys like me? I have many friends that are in similar situations, and any advice I could give to them from someone in your shoes would be incredibly helpful.

    I appreciate the benefit that you bring to my life.

    God bless,

  • Blair

    Wow Michael, an excellent way to show us some valid reasons that lead to a fight. Be it your spouse, employer, associate or your good friend, there is some genuine reason that causes a fight. You expect more, always find yourself to be right, don’t listen and go on talking etc. makes things worse, so find the right solution to every problem at 100daychallenge.org and enjoy a great living.

  • Brian sherman

    Michael I find it easier to lead 150 people at work than to lead my wife and my three children. This is something I’ve struggled with greatly. It has improved but I have a long way to go.