Having Tough Conversations Around the Holiday Table

November 19th, 2015

shutterstock_123420379When we think about the holiday table, we think about one filled with lots of food and someone telling embarrassing “remember when” stories and everyone studiously avoiding politics. We enjoy that warm and happy atmosphere. This could also be a good time to have the difficult conversations with aging parents and the younger generation. It needs to be navigated carefully so no one feels trapped. And it can even be a positive experience for everyone.

What to Discuss

  • Driving
  • Wills, Living Wills, Trusts, and Final Requests
  • Assisted Living
  • Dementia
  • Staying in the family home versus Selling and Moving

This is just a starter. And the conversations can run both ways. You may have kids in their 20s and 30s who don’t want to think about their parents dying. However, it could be a good conversation to let them know what you want, and get them thinking about getting their lives in order.

Quick Tips for Success

Here are a few simple ideas for navigating challenging conversations and having more fulfilling, stress-free discussions at your holiday table!

  • Review prior conversations: Ask each other, “How has this kind of conversation gone before? What worked well? What do we want less of?” Think about what you want to prevent, what you want to promote and what kind of a plan will get you there.
  • Set Up some “ground rules” Some examples:
    • No interrupting when someone is speaking.
    • No shouting or raised voices.
    • No condemnation or judgment.
    • Use “I” statements rather than accusations (“You always….”)
  • Ask questions to increase understanding. Instead of saying “How can you possibly think that way?” try “Can you tell me more about how you came to that decision?”
  • Set a time limit. If people know this is going to be limited exploration, not an hour-long inquisition, the invitation to speak might be more inviting.
  • When someone is speaking, listen. Don’t prepare a response, focus on understanding the speaker. You might want to use a timer on talking, so everyone knows they’ll have a chance to speak.
  • Before starting a conversation, go around the table and let everyone speak about an issue. Let everyone have a turn to speak before anyone responds.
  • Examine your assumptions about what others saying. When someone says something that angers or upsets you, take a moment to examine and explain your assumptions about their words. For instance, if a family member feels they are being talked down to, she or he might say, “When you say that, it sounds like you think I’m not smart enough. Is that what you mean, or something else?” It sounds simple, but voicing these thoughts can go a long way towards reducing misunderstandings.
  • Ask everyone about what they’re hearing. To ensure that you’re communicating in the way you want, ask your family members to tell you what they’re hearing when you speak. This ensures that your words are having the impact you want. For instance, try saying, “I’m worried that you might be taking what I said the wrong way. What do you hear when I say…?”
  • Stop every so often and ask: “Is this conversation going how we would like it to?” If not, step back, and discuss how you can reorient the discussion.

Ice Breakers

Although there are some holiday gatherings that would be inappropriate for tough conversations, use the opportunity of feeling together and bonded when at all possible.  Also, consider that more intimate conversations in small groups are commonly better than one large conversation over the turkey dinner at the table!

Here are three possible “ice-breakers” to start a conversation about what matters to you most at the end-of-your life or theirs if you’re talking about your parents:

  1. “I sure miss ________ at our family celebrations!  When s/he passed away, I felt so helpless not knowing anything about what was important to him/her at the end.  What’s important for me to know about you/mom/dad (whomever) so that doesn’t happen to us?”  OR…..
  2. “I’m pleased to have finally completed my Health Care Directive, something I’ve been putting off for awhile, and I named mom/dad/whomever as my agent.  Do you have one?”  OR…..
  3.  “Did you hear the _______family just lost _________?  It was so hard to see them fighting over what should happen when their mom/dad went into hospice care – especially for mom/dad. Can we at least start a conversation today about what’s important to you/mom/dad (whomever) so that doesn’t happen to us? It seems so much easier to talk about it now before there’s a crisis.”

Remember, not everyone responds to conversations like these in the same way, and it’s wise to select your conversation participants wisely before dipping your toe into the water. But, you know it’s true that these conversations are easier and less stressful when there’s not a crisis at hand.  And, even if some of the family is uncomfortable, you can try to keep the conversation focused on opportunities to serve each other as friends and family in an emotionally challenging situation, or on the fact that you’re interested in addressing the exercise of personal choice and unique concerns.

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