In earlier posts, I discussed ways in which adult children sometimes sabotage themselves when talking to their parents about the need for change. It is not enough to want to have the conversation out of concern for your parent’s welfare. I wish it were. And even mustering all the love and caring you possess isn’t always enough to convince your loved one to get on board with your ideas. I wish I could provide you with a checklist that when followed would unlock all the secrets and instantly give you the success you’ve been hoping for. Unfortunately that doesn’t exist. Each family situation is a little different. What I can do is share a few ideas, that might just change how all of you approach your interactions and help you hear what the other is saying. At a minimum it will help you find common ground. It’s from that point that you can actually begin to move forward. See if any if this rings true and is helpful to you.
- Start by consciously considering what you should bring to the discussion and what you should leave behind.
- Bring a clear head, an honest willingness to listen, and a committed intent to express your true feelings - not just opinions, but feelings. Leave behind the anger and frustration that has grown through the difficult discussions you’ve had over and over again. Remember, your parents are not trying to be difficult, even though it sure seems like they are. It’s probably their fear speaking.
- Park the old conversations and start anew. You know those points you always feel compelled to make, the prepared statements you have brought to earlier conversations? Set them aside. Instead, for today, make it about them. This time, you will set aside the old conversations and ask different questions that will help you to understand what they’re feeling, not just what they’re thinking.
- Be prepared, but in a different way.
Set the stage for a successful conversation
Open with clarity, laced with a heavy dose of compassion. State up front, “We’ve talked a lot about my concern for you, and you know I’d like to see you move. I love you and want what’s best for you. But I don’t want to talk about that today, I want to listen today. I want to ask you a few questions and I really want to know how you feel about some things.”
They may appear a bit suspicious at first…wouldn’t you be? That’s OK. Your sincerity will win them over soon enough.
Open the door to an honest exchange
Listen, listen, listen. Ask a question and listen again. How hard is it to listen to someone when they’re expressing ideas that don’t make any sense to you or don’t seem logical? Nearly impossible? And what happens when we disagree with their opinion? We feel compelled to correct them, to show them the error of their thinking and to make sure they know why they’re wrong. I’d like to suggest a different approach. Ask: When I suggest that I think you should move, how does that make you feel? If you’re met with silence, consider that success. If they have a quick answer, you know it’s one of those planned, rote answers. The silence means you’ve got them thinking. Embrace the silence, the pause, and allow them time to find their answer.
Be careful not to sabotage the conversation
Whatever thoughts are shared, before you state your opinion, be sure to validate their feelings. Validating is not saying someone is right, but rather that they have the right to feel that way.
We are each an accumulation of our life experiences, they shape how we view things. When mom says: I don’t want to move, what if I don’t like it, a typical response might be, I’m sure you’re going to like it, you’ve got friends there, it’s a lovely place, you’ll be fine.
In that response they’ve just been told their concerns aren’t valid and they likely feel dismissed. Instead, a validating response might be: Mom, let’s talk about that. What do you think you won’t like? Or, What’s the most frightening thing to you about moving? Note, we haven’t said that we think she’ll like it. We haven’t said she’s foolish for worrying about that. We’ve honored her concerns by wanting to hear more. By trying to move forward with the conversation before we understand what our loved ones are really feeling, we set ourselves up for the same old unproductive conversation. Been there, done that. Let’s try something different
Digging deeper sometimes reveals surprising results
The first question opens the conversation, but the follow up questions get you answers and a true understanding. When your parent shares their perspective on something, do you make assumptions that you know what they mean? I’ve certainly done my share of that. But along the way I discovered the error of my ways. See if this sounds familiar
I was sitting in a client’s living room. Alice had lived in her Milwaukee home for 49 years. She was struggling with the concept of moving, and I was sure I knew why. I asked her if she was ready to move. She said she thought she should, but she just couldn’t pull the trigger. I asked what was holding her back. She thought about it for a while and said she just wasn’t ready.
Now I had no doubt in my mind that a big piece of her struggle was leaving her home of 49 years. That was a logical conclusion. So I said, “I’ll bet it’s difficult to think about leaving this lovely home after so many years.” Her response amazed me…”No, not really. I like my house but I’m not a very sentimental person.” OK, back to square one. So I asked, “What do you picture when you think of moving into a retirement community?” And here, in the follow up question, both she and I got a surprise. After some loud silence, she said, “That’s a good question…I guess I wonder if I’ll be happy, and what happens if I’m not.” And before I could make any comment, she continued, “You know, I’ve never said that out loud before, and frankly those words are a surprise to me as well.” As we talked further I learned that her sister had moved to a community a few years ago, was unhappy and moved out again. I asked if her sister was happy now, she said no, followed by a knowing grin.
I took the opportunity to remind Alice that though it can be valuable to talk with others who’ve experienced similar changes, the fact is we’re all different. And even sisters are different people with different life experiences. I agreed she should solicit opinions, take advantage of the counsel of those she trusts. But in the end, I suggested Alice let the outside voices fade and let her own inner voice guide her. Alice knew the right answer…she just have to learn to trust herself.
There are no magic pills or potions that can get us all on the same page and make a difficult life transition easy. At the same time, it doesn’t have to be as difficult as we sometimes make it. Taking a step back, considering a different mindset and approach, can result in a fresh start to an old issue. It’s amazing what we can accomplish when we open our minds to the possibilities.
In this and other posts I have shared some stories that illustrate what has worked for some families. I will return to this topic from time to time. I invite you to share your thoughts and any ideas that have worked for you and your family. Everyone benefits!