Communication is one of the most complex things we do as humans. Of course, communication is about talking – trying to find the right words to express your ideas and interpreting the words of others. But communication also involves picking up on social and other cues – not to mention picking up on what’s not being said. We take all these tiny bits of information flying at us every millisecond to put together what we believe to be a coherent picture.
With such complex interactions, we’re bound to get it wrong from time to time. In most of our daily interactions, “getting it wrong” leads to minor miscommunications that are usually easily solved. (Hey, without misunderstandings, we wouldn’t have had Three’s Company...) But when a parent or loved one relies upon us for so much, “getting it right” suddenly becomes a whole lot more important.
Here are three ways you can improve your caregiver communications skills starting right now.
This is so basic, yet it is one of the most overlooked aspects of caregiver communication skills. You can’t communicate effectively if you aren’t listening to what your loved one is telling you. We can often get into Q&A routines such as asking how their day is going or if they need anything without going under the surface. We’re talking, but we’re not really communicating. This is a natural, especially if we feel particularly stressed or tired. But when we realize we’re doing it, we can address it.
Ask questions – even basic chit-chat questions – but listen to hear, and respond accordingly. There may be clues in those chit-chatty answers as to what they want or need in their day. And of course consult them on all decisions wherever possible. Sometimes it’s difficult to get them to understand what is changing and why. Don’t dismiss their objections, even if those changes are inevitable. Do your best to address their concerns and adapt to them. At the very least, make sure they know they are being heard.
They say that communication is 93% non-verbal. Or 70%. Or 50%. Depends on who you talk to. But what everyone agrees upon is that a significant amount – and important part – of communication is what’s behind and around the words. Listen to how they are speaking as well as what they are saying. Are they agitated, happy, sad, hopeful? Are they looking at you when they speak? Do they seem particularly withdrawn or are they engaged with you?
Effective caregiver communication skills are particularly important for loved ones with certain challenges such as Alzheimer’s, dementia, or other diseases that affect memory. For one thing, your parent or loved one is much less likely to be able to find the words they want to use, even when they are lucid. If they are not lucid, then non-verbal communication obviously becomes a lot more important.
This is really where the whole “complex interaction” goes to a different level, and many of us have problems accurately interpreting what’s being said. But the clues are there, and if we spend a bit more time trying to figure the clues out, we will increase our chances of communicating effectively.
Another good caregiver communication skill is learning how to respond rather than react. In fact, reaction can quickly destroy effective communication. The difference between react and respond is this: reaction involves emotions and sometimes is triggered by past conversations – our interpersonal history. So, either internally or externally, we say, “Oh, we’re onto this again...” and we check out of the conversation. It’s one of the reasons we get ourselves into communication ruts.
Responding, on the other hand, only focuses on what’s being said in the here and now. You listen to your loved one’s words to try to determine what they are trying to tell you. And here’s the important point – what they are trying to tell you may be totally different than the view you already hold. You might think they are happy with the drapes open and the sun shining in. You might even think it’s “best” for them. But perhaps what they’re saying is that no, the sun is too bright today and they prefer the drapes closed.
Put aside any notions you may have, consider carefully to what they are saying, and find the true meaning behind their words. Then, respond appropriately without letting your views or emotions get in the way. This is a difficult skill to learn if you don’t already have it, but it’s a vital one!
Here’s a bonus fourth tip for you: get some help! Besides taking some of the load off of you, third-person caregivers are a great resource for “interpreting” between caregiver and loved one. There isn’t any family history to get in the way, there is less cause for hurt feelings (which can stunt communication in itself), and they trained in effective communication. I have so many of my coaching clients tell me that they had a better understanding of what their loved ones were trying to tell them simply by talking with a third-party caregiver. That outside perspective free of emotions gives tremendous insights. Plus, getting help is an important part of Balanced Success – making sure you’re taking care of you as well.
Call me, Liz Comuzzi, for a free 15-minute conversation about your own particular situation. I can help in several ways including personal one-on-one coaching sessions, online courses, or even direct you to some in-home care providers to give you that hands-on help you need. At the very least, I can point you in the right direction to help you improve your own caregiver communication skills to become a better caregiver to your parent or loved one.
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