Even if you are good at day-to-day communication, having difficult conversations is a whole other skill set. I’ve had many effective communicators tell me that they freeze up and lose their ability to say what they want to say when the conversation gets tough. Or instead of freezing up, they say things they don’t mean or say things they do mean but in a way that is damaging to the relationship. Communicating a difficult message without shutting down, guilt-tripping, becoming aggressive or defensive, or using other unhealthy communication tactics is not always easy, especially if things get heated. When the emotional side of our brain takes over from the rational side, our healthy communication skills can easily go out the window, and we can fall into unproductive patterns.But the good news is that one simple communication technique can help you communicate more effectively and productively not only in your caregiving relationship, but in ALL of your relationships. This simple technique is: seeking to understand.
As a caregiver, seeking to understand what your care recipient is actually trying to say will spare you time and energy, as well as the frustrations so many of us experience from miscommunication and/or lack of communication. Many times, people are not really listening but instead are waiting to talk. They are not seeking to understand the other person’s perspective but are anxiously waiting to give their own opinions. This approach usually leaves both parties to the conversation feeling as though they were not heard, understood, or acknowledged. It often causes us to get defensive, repeat our point of view more forcefully, or shut down and stop talking altogether. When we are going around and around the same topic, repeating ourselves and never getting anywhere, we must ask ourselves if we are really listening and truly hearing what the other person is saying. Perhaps they are not listening either, but one thing I can almost guarantee is once a person feels heard, they will likely be more open and receptive to what you have to say. Allow them time to explain their point of view without interrupting or defending yourself. Give them the benefit of the doubt and stand in the possibility of being wrong so you can at least hear their side of the “story.” Here are brief caregiving scenarios to illustrate how jumping straight into your own side of the story without seeking to understand can lead to trouble and how seeking to understand can lead to better understanding and ultimately to better solutions:
Caregiver (CG): You need to take a bath and change your clothes every day. If you don’t, I’m not taking you out in public anymore.
Care Recipient (CR): I’m tired of you telling me what to do. You’re not the boss!
CG: Mom, you and I seem to have a different opinion on how often you should bathe and change your clothes. I’m wondering if you could tell me how you see things.
CR: I slipped the other day when I was getting out of the shower and almost fell. I’m afraid I will hurt myself and become even more dependent on you. Plus, every time I change my clothes, it makes more laundry for you, and you always say how you hate doing laundry.
CG: I didn’t know you’d almost slipped, or that you felt this way. I’m wondering if we could talk more about this, and I’d also like to share with you my concerns so we can try to come up with solutions together.
Instead of defending or explaining your own points, seek to understand by asking questions like:
- What’s it like for you when…?
- Can you tell me more?
- Can you share your thoughts on…?
- What else are you experiencing?
- What are you worried might happen if…?
While they are answering, make sure to give your undivided attention. Listen deeply and try to understand what they are really trying to express.
There is no doubt that it can be difficult to know what and what not to say in certain caregiving situations. We often feel like we are walking on eggshells. We don’t want to upset our loved one. We might not want to confront them, but the fact is, we can’t avoid all difficult conversation.
Good communication skills may not solve all of your problems, but seeking to understand can positively transform your caregiving conversations.