Many of us will find ourselves in the role of a caregiver or the care recipient, often unceremoniously, in the midst of a new or worsened medical illness. This stressful period can be marked by conflict, arguments, and resentment as people adjust to their new roles. Clear communication is like a salve, with the potential to promote connection and healing.
Here we share 5 communication tips for a caregiver and a care-recipient to work together and create a foundation of understanding.
1. Make time to talk
Both the caregiver and the care-recipient should agree upon a time to talk, where you will both be available, and where you both ensure to block off enough time for a conversation. This is even more crucial when discussing conflict ridden and often emotionally heavy topics. Making time to talk also means limiting the distractions. This means turning off the TV, putting the cellphone aside, finding those glasses and turning on the hearing aids if needed.
2. Take turns
Most arguments escalate when the participants in the conversation feel like they will not be given the time to be heard. Practice taking turns, giving each individual the space to express concerns and be heard. When you think the other person may be done, pause, and then ask “Is there anything else you would like to share?” This gives the other person permission to continue if needed, and if not it signals that they have shared what they needed to share. Then try out some of the skills of an active and curious listener as in #3. After doing this, it is your turn to speak.
3. Listen first, then ask questions
Be an active listener. An active listener utilizes their body language to communicate interest. Face the person who is talking and lean into them instead of looking out the window or facing away. Pull up a chair, sit down, and then settle in – no matter how badly you may want to end the conversation, commit to being present.
Being an active listener also means communicating that you heard them and understood what they were saying. For example, if an elderly parent tells you that they hate when you say that they “can’t stay at home alone anymore”, instead of responding by listing the reasons why they can no longer safely stay at home alone, first show them you are paying attention and want to understand how they feel. You can respond to them by reflecting back “It sounds like it is really upsetting when I say that. Can you tell me more about that?” Other useful questions include asking “How does *[insert situation]* make you feel?”, “how does [insert situation] work for you?”, “how are you doing with [insert situation]”
This acknowledgement and expression of curiosity can de-escalate a heated argument and help both of you come to a place of understanding. Once you have listened and asked questions, #4 is often an important next step.
4. Own your emotions
Own your emotions and use “I” instead of “You”. Try saying “I am feeling frustrated” instead of saying “You are frustrating me”. This small change allows you to accurately express your feelings without blaming someone else and causing them to be on the defensive. Naming your emotion is one way of acknowledging it and respecting your own emotional state.
5. Practice, Practice, Practice
Like any new skill, these communication skills need practice. It is hard to modify the way we communicate and the first time you try this approach it will not be perfect. But come back, try it again, and you will get better!
Giving care and receiving care are hard and complicated even in the most fulfilling of moments. Arguments and conflict are normal and expected. These 5 communication skills can transform highly charged conversations into ones that promote understanding. Try out these tips, see how they feel and remember, a conversation is not about winning, but it is about expressing yourself, being heard, being understood, and understanding someone else’s experience.
Ashwini Bapat, M.D. is a palliative care doctor, coach, and co-Founder of EpioneMD. She completed her Internal Medicine residency and Hospice & Palliative Medicine fellowship at Yale-New Haven Hospital and then worked at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School. She is inspired and awed by human resilience and the mysteries intrinsic to life and death.