As our parents get older, we often relate to them as if they were our children and we listen to them in that way. My mother is suffering from Alzheimer’s and her conversations often revolve around a few topics, her need for a phone, an eye doctor appointment and another box of tissues. But ocasionally she says something quite profound and if I weren’t listening to her carefully I would miss it.
Being a good listener is a real art. Recently I took an excellent training course in Elder Mediation offered by Elder Decisions in Boston. www.elderdecisions.com. Sharon, an attorney from Maryland, who was in the course with me, introduced me to some of the books written by members of the Harvard Negotiation Project. She shared a book with me written by Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton and Sheila Heen entitled “Difficult Conversations, How to Discuss What Matters Most”. In this book the authors describe the key skills to become a good listener. I think we would all benefit from applying these skills to our conversations with our elderly parents.
The authors state that truly listening to another person transforms your relationship with them. They suggest learning to listen “from the inside out” . In other words, listen with curiosity. Ask questions. Paraphrase what your parent says so they understand that you understand them. Listen for the feelings behind what they are saying and acknowledge them when you hear them.
But don’t let your conversation become an exercise in listening correctly. The heart of good listening is listening with authenticity. People will sense what’s going on inside you if you are not genuine. If your intentions are good the words you use are not that important.
The authors remind us that each of us has an internal voice, the voice inside our head that reports what we are thinking not what we are saying. This internal voice is constantly evaluating everything that is going on, including our words and actions and what the other person is saying. If we are not aware of this voice, it can create havoc with our attempts to listen to others authentically.
Listen to that internal voice in your head. What is it saying now? (“What me? I don’t have any internal voice”) Don’t turn off the voice but listen to it carefully. How is it evaluating what the other person is saying? Get to know the kinds of things your internal voice is transmitting to you so they don’t interfere with your conversation.
Stay focused on curiosity in your conversation with your parent. Remember that most people, especially elders, rarely perceive that anyone is actually listening to them. And when they sense that you are authentically paying attention it will open up their heart.