Your communication skills can have an enduring impact on your parent’s wellbeing.
When we talk, the subjects we choose, the words we use, the questions we ask, our tone of voice, our stance and body language, and even our timing can all combine to shape how we make others feel.
This is why the phrase “Approach the topic sensitively and with empathy” features in so many of the articles and guidance in our bookcase. It’s a phrase which aims to convey the vital importance of effective, sensitive and respectful communication especially when initiating difficult conversations or dealing with difficult subjects.
Empathy is about understanding the situation from your parent’s point of view. It’s about putting yourself in their shoes in order to understand what’s going on for them. Unlike sympathy, empathy is not about you or your feelings, it’s about your parent and their feelings and you taking time to really understand what they’re going through without passing judgement or making assumptions.
Broaching a subject sensitively is about recognising that your parent is facing some major and challenging transitions often amidst fatigue, poor health and declining independence. Being sensitive respects their experience and recognises that any loss of independence can be accompanied by an increased sense of vulnerability.
Vulnerability can prompt fears that personal needs and preferences might not be adequately respected. Being sensitive recognises those fears and the value of treading gently, with kindness and compassion.
Empathy, diplomacy, sensitivity, respect and other essential interpersonal skills can be challenging, especially in emotionally charged or stressful situations, and when there is any difference of opinion. These challenges can be further compounded if your parent has any hearing or cognitive impairment.
How do you want your parent to feel?
Perhaps, a simple rule of thumb is to approach each conversation knowing that, when you and your parent part company, they might be more likely to recall how you made them feel rather than what you actually said. Feelings often linger long after a conversation has ended .
For this reason, you might find it helpful to explore and, when appropriate, use a “feelings based communication style”. Whilst this is recommended for people living with dementia, some of the benefits, principles and techniques can be helpful for anyone.
The way feelings linger is emphasised in this video called the bookcase analogy. It lasts 6 minutes and, as well as providing a helpful insight into dementia, it explains how feelings can endure long after an interaction.
The emotional impact of communication and the value and techniques of feelings based communication are explained in this 10 minute video which also provides other essential communication advice. The video was developed as part of The Dementia Friends programme (an initiative aiming to change people’s perceptions of dementia).
It's never too late to build your communication skills. Why not try this?