Difficult Conversations

How to Handle Difficult Conversations

I read with interest the November 21, 2020, Caregiver Space article, “How to Have a Difficult Conversation,” by Adar Cohen (Edited by Lucy Foulkes).

See:  How to have a difficult conversation | The Caregiver Space

Family communications was a frequently addressed topic addressed in What to do About Mama? (Barbara G. Matthews and Barbara Trainin Blank).  It was difficult in my own caregiving experience, as well as in many of the other caregivers who made contributions to the book. 

“Good communication among all the significant parties is the best means to develop a successful caregiving plan. However, communication skills are developed over a lifetime. They don’t suddenly become “good,” especially when family members are dealing with the problems and stresses that arise from caregiving needs.”

What to Do about Mama? p. 152

The article suggests that avoiding difficult conversations only fosters more conflict, and that caregivers should aim for a shared understanding. A synopsis of the article follows, interspersed with relevant excerpts from What to Do about Mama?    

“It is optimal for everyone involved to get together to talk openly, to listen, to divide responsibility, to compromise, and to commit. And, in some families, this truly does happen. But a more frequent scenario is that as a need arises someone steps in to meet that need (often the one who has “always” provided support), and the others take a back seat or hands-off approach.”

What to Do about Mama? p. 154

When Mediators help people have difficult conversations, they aim for one of three outcomes:

  • A solution:  a grand bargain, a resounding win, a comprehensive solution expected to withstand the pressures of future challenges.
  • A plan:  more realistic; like a map for finding a solution; open-ended but with a path forward; establishes new boundaries, revised norms, and shared expectations.
  • An understanding:  the most realistic outcome, especially at the beginning, is to focus on reaching an understanding; a new awareness of the other person’s experience; a mutual appreciation for one another’s needs;  can lay a foundation for a plan, a solution and a new relationship.

“A productive family meeting can build a strong foundation for family caregiving. Do you share common values? Talk about what is most important to all of you—autonomy or safety—or whether you place equal weight on both. Establish common goals. Divide responsibility based on the strengths and abilities each of you brings to the family.”

What to Do about Mama? p. 155

The following techniques from an expert mediator are guides to help you do this without the mediator. It is a way to create the conditions in which people feel heard and acknowledged.

  1. Prepare for the conversation: imagine you just finished having the best possible conversation where each of your concerns was addressed to your satisfaction.
  2. Dig out a gem:   What would you say to them in this moment? Your statement should be an authentic expression of how you’re feeling but should also have significant meaning and positive impact for the other person.
  3. Ask yourself if you’re ready:  Are you willing to risk make the statement?  Although making a gem statement can create temporary discomfort, benefits are lasting and profound.   
  4. Phone a friend and tell them the following four sentences:
    #1 The biggest emotion that I’m feeling toward the person I need to have a difficult conversation with is…
    #2 The biggest emotion that I expect the person is feeling toward me is…
    #3 The gem statement I will make to them is…
    #4 My hope for the conversation is…
  5. Start the conversation (in person, by phone, or by video) by stating your gem, immediately followed by: “I say this because I think if we both really try, we can work this out.”
  6. Listen and talk. Remember your purpose.  Try to achieve understanding, even if it falls short of a solution.  Remember that just as you need to be heard, your counterpart needs to be heard too.
    *Minimize arguments, foster empathy, describe your experiences and emotions, do not list your
    counterpart’s mistakes and faults.
    *Filter your grievances: Stick to your top three grievances so as not to tax your counterpart’s ability to
    absorb and respond to critique.
    *Look back at the fill-in-the-blank sentences you read to your friend and see if there’s anything more or different you’d like to share.
  7. Close the conversation. Ask one another to identify what has changed as a result of this conversation. Remember that your goal is to understand each other.

“What was “heard,” however, were only the “criticisms” regarding the unwillingness to take risks and make sacrifices, requirements to schedule respite visits a year in advance, “can’t do” attitudes, elevating other priorities over and above Mom, and the second-guessing of our decisions.”

What to Do about Mama? p. 16

I think it is important to note that despite all your best efforts, you cannot always orchestrate the outcomes you wish for.  You make your own choices–you cannot control those made by others.  In my own caregiving situation, we enlisted the support of a mediator, which helped to achieve current goals.

“If you do not want to handle the caregiving responsibility alone, and if the family cannot come together in agreement, you may need to seek professional intervention.”

What to Do about Mama? p. 158

However, sometimes you’re caught in a recurring family pattern that causes pain and drives you away from the people you have loved. Once again, you may come to the point where you have to make choices—even if they are disappointing.    

“What if family mediation is, once again, an unsuccessful endeavor? There could be healing someday if you and your siblings find your way to let go of grudges. But you may also have to learn to accept that sometimes relationships are broken beyond repair, and it’s just not your job to fix them. Whereas childhood relationships with brothers and sisters are involuntary, maintaining them in adulthood is not. We are entitled to choose ‘not’.” 194

What to Do about Mama? p. 194


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