How to Connect with an Aging Parent


Dear David,

My husband struggles with how to engage in conversation with his mother. Mom doesn’t get out much and spends a lot of time with what we consider negative news. When we are together, she shares her opinions as facts. Often sweeping generalizations,”Kids today don’t learn anything in school,” or, “No one . . . ” or, “All those people . . .  ”. He has tried to gently engage, “Interesting that you think that. What I’ve seen for my kids is they are working very hard and learning a lot in school.” She’ll say something like, “Well of course I don’t mean YOUR kids. But all the other ones who don’t have parents who care . . . ” If he disagrees with her, she acts personally attacked, and as if he doesn’t love her.

My husband has tried being silent and not engaging, but fears he is seen as agreeing and therefore contributing to stereotyping and prejudice in our society. He has tried to bring it up, “When you state your opinions so strongly, I don’t know how to share a different opinion without you feeling hurt that I disagree,” but without luck. Please help!

Signed,
Sidelined by Mom

Dear Sidelined,

What a sad question! Hurt feelings in families are especially painful. And yet, when you hear a loved one make an offensive comment, you don’t want your silence to endorse it. In Crucial Conversations we teach how to disagree in the moment without hurting feelings, but I want to draw on our book, Influencer, to take a longer-term view.

I think the fundamental problem to solve is that mom doesn’t get out much, but wants to contribute to your conversations. I don’t know her so I’m going to imagine she is a bit like my mother or my wife’s mother when they were in their 70’s and 80’s.

Your Data Stream Determines Your Mental Agenda.
As my mom entered her 70’s and 80’s, she retired from being a math professor, health problems kept her mostly indoors, she stopped driving, and she moved away from friends to be close to family. This meant that her world shrank into a fairly small bubble. Is this the same for your mom?

Imagine her small world. Where does she get her information? She probably watches a fair amount of television, mostly cable news with a sprinkling of a few favorite shows. Her friends are probably a lot like her, similar in age and TV viewing habits. As a result, her data stream is limited and repetitive. And it’s likely to be skewed towards the negative, because that’s what’s considered newsworthy.

Mom is Still Mom. A mom’s role in the family is a sacred one, and your mom should never give it up. A part of that role is to give advice, share opinions, and protect you from the world out there. I believe that is what she is doing when she makes her “sweeping generalizations.”

Conversations Stall Out. Does the following happen? You and your husband are with mom making conversation. You hit on a topic where she thinks she can contribute, because she heard about it on TV. But, when she speaks up, her comment strikes you as a negative opinion, not a fact. You either go silent or speak up to disagree. The conversation dies and mom feels hurt.

If this is what’s happening, then the question shouldn’t be, “What can I say in the moment?” but, “What can I do to broaden mom’s data stream and deepen our relationship?” Here are a few strategies that worked for my wife and me.

Include Her in Your Data Stream. My wife and I got some excellent advice from a friend. She told us, “When your mom gets into her 70’s, you need to call her every day.” We took that advice and it made a world of difference. It gave us personal topics to talk about, topics that were more important to us than whatever the latest news might be. Weekly calls don’t give mom enough context to contribute, but daily calls make her a part of your life.

We also began taking more photos. We’d send our mom two or three photos a day, just to let her know what we were up to. Then, when we talked at the end of the day, mom could comment on the photos and feel as if she were with us.

Think of ways to connect on a daily basis and to give her more details about your goings on. This will give you more positive and personal topics to discuss.

Create Common Experiences. My mom was a reader, so we started a book club with her—just me, my wife, and my mom. We quickly learned what she liked: John McPhee was an early favorite. As she grew older, we moved to shorter essays and stories. Tove Jansson’s, The Summer Book, and Bern Heinrich’s, One Wild Bird at a Time, became our new favorites. Once again, our goal was to create common experiences and shared experiences that gave us more to discuss than the weather, current events, and politics.

My wife’s mom loved music, so we started watching TV music shows together. This was a bit awkward since we lived three states apart. But the three of us became fans of American Idol, The Voice, and Dancing With The Stars. My wife would call her mom just before the show began to awaken her and make sure her TV was tuned to the right channel. Then, we’d call during commercial breaks to get her opinions on the performances, judges, and competitors. Again, our goal was to have shared experiences that were more relevant and personal than the weather, current events, or politics.

A last piece of advice is to ask mom about herself. Moms have so much history and wisdom to share. Below are a few questions I’ve pulled off the Internet. My wife and I tried some of these with our moms. They can stimulate some rich conversations, but not all of them work with every mom and you may need some patience to get the conversation going.

• How did you meet Dad and how did you know he was “The One”?
• What’s one thing you wish you did differently before you got married or had kids?
• What question do you wish you could ask your mom?
• What’s the hardest thing about being a mom? What’s the best thing?
• What was your dream job when you were younger?
• How many jobs have you had in your life? What did you learn from them?
• Who was your favorite person to spend time with when you were a teenager? Why?
• What kind of car did you learn to drive in? Who taught you?

I hope these ideas help you find more common ground with your aging mother and create common shared experiences that can generate positive conversation. I believe you are seeking for that kind of rich relationship that will benefit you both and I hope you can find it.

Best of Luck,
David

HeadshotDavid Maxfield

David Maxfield is a New York Times bestselling author, keynote speaker, and leading social scientist for organizational change. For thirty years, David has delivered engaging keynotes at prestigious venues including Stanford and Georgetown Universities. David’s work has been translated into twenty-eight languages, is available in thirty-six countries, and has generated results for three hundred of the Fortune 500.

Re-blogged from VitalSmarts