How to Speak So Your Parents Will Listen

by Robin Bartee

How to Speak So Your Parents Will Listen

Contents

    Watching the news unfold in this era of COVID-19, many of us are experiencing varying levels of anxiety and stress – especially if you have family members who are at high risk for complications.

    You may be wondering how to keep your loved ones safe and healthy. You may be wondering what to do if they get sick. You may be wondering if your parents or older family members have any plans for their medical care, finances and estate, and how to figure out what those plans are.

    And if you’re reading this article, you’ve probably had a hard time getting your parents to talk about whether they’ve made plans. After all, most of us aren’t exactly keen to chat about our own mortality. So, what should you do when your sense of urgency pushes the limits of someone else’s boundaries?

    What we really need to learn is not so much how to speak so that our parents will listen, but how to listen so that our parents will speak. As a mental health provider, it’s part of my job to help people talk about things they’d rather avoid. Below are four tips on how to open difficult conversations with love and respect.

    O – Own it

    Trying to persuade your parents to tell you something that they’d rather not is nearly as frustrating and futile as getting your 4-year-old to eat vegetables. That might prompt you to get sneaky about it or to use emotional manipulation tactics, such as, “If you cared about me, you’d tell me.” Let me be clear: Manipulation and scare tactics are not loving, no matter how pure and valid your reasons.

    What we really need to learn is not so much how to speak so that our parents will listen, but how to listen so that our parents will speak.

    If you are experiencing distress due to this pandemic that is, quite frankly, scaring most of the world, own it. If you want to ask your parents if they have important end-of-life legal documents, own it. It’s OK to say, “I’m worried about the coronavirus and the health of my family. I need to know if you have documents such as a will or an advanced directive so that I know what your wishes are and can respect them.” 

    P – Respect privacy

    When you open a conversation with your parents about their medical and end-of-life wishes, it’s important to respect a certain degree of privacy. Just because you trust someone doesn’t mean you trust them with everything. You wouldn’t tell your child’s teacher everything you’d tell your doctor. You wouldn’t even tell the server everything you’d tell the bartender. 

    Think carefully about what you really need to know. Do you really need to know who gets what in your parents’ wills? Do you need to know exactly what sort of end-of-life medical care they do or do not want? Probably not. 

    Mostly, it’s important to know if they have any sort of documents with these instructions somewhere and whether someone in their life knows how to access and execute them. In these times, it’s also important to know if there is at least one back-up person with that same knowledge. If your parents don’t have anything written down, it’s not your job to play the role of impromptu lawyer. Trying to squeeze the details out of them yourself is what we’d call in my profession a “conflict of interest.” 

    If your parents need help to connect with a lawyer or an online legal service, you might provide them with some contact information. Then, respect their autonomy by asking, “Is there anyone you’d like to have help you with this?” instead of assuming that role on your own.

    E – Encourage talking by truly listening

    Most of us are hesitant to talk to people if we perceive that they aren’t really listening. Think back to your teenage years for a moment. Why didn’t you open up to your parents about certain sensitive subjects? For most of us judgment, punishment, uninvited advice and interruption were (and are) the archenemies of trust and openness. 

    Therapists often employ something called “reflective listening.” The idea is that you listen to truly understand, not to change or influence anything.

    In a conversation of this nature, that might look like posing an open-ended question such as, “Are you worried about getting sick?” Then, listen without interrupting, judging, offering advice or making it about you. Finally, offer a reflective statement – summarize what you heard to make sure you really got it right. That reflection creates a feeling of validation and emotional safety from being truly understood. This helps the speaker to open up more, even without further questions or prompts. 

    Therapists often employ something called “reflective listening.” The idea is that you listen to truly understand, not to change or influence anything.

    Don’t try to rush or push into deeper and deeper topics. Don’t get hung up on whether you agree with what they are saying. Just stay present and try to understand. Trust is built through emotional safety.

    N – Stay neutral

    Think about the last time you walked down a city street and saw some stranger with a clipboard approaching you with a forced smile. Chances are, you made a beeline for the other side of the street rather than try to think of some reason you couldn’t sign a petition to save the narwhals. And who doesn’t love narwhals? But still, no one wants to be cornered or pressured by someone else’s agenda.

    If you want to find out whether your parents have written down their medical and financial wishes, you can’t go into the conversation determined to get them to agree with you on what those wishes should be. If you’re trying to persuade them to make a specific decision about who gets what property or which medical intervention they should or should not tolerate, the conversation will shut down before it even gets started.

    Depending on your interpersonal history with them, your parents might assume that you have a specific personal agenda, even when you don’t. Earn trust by using the reflective listening skill outlined above, being open about your purpose, and respecting their privacy boundaries.

    So, are you guaranteed success if you follow these tips? No. People are tricky. Trust takes time. Is it worth trying? Absolutely. You may find your parents just need a little help getting started or that they have been feeling anxious and overwhelmed, too. Approaching this with love and respect can create a safe space for all of you.


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    Robin Bartee

    Robin Bartee, LCSW is a licensed therapist in Albuquerque, N.M., and a per course instructor with New Mexico Highlands University.

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