The following are some tips for improving communication and handling conflict:
Step back from the situation.
By taking a step back from your family caregiving situation, you can better review reasons why things are happening and alternatives for dealing with problems. This can only be done by taking a break from caregiving duties. With a better understanding for your situation and feeling that there are options for help, your may feel relieved and better equipped to deal with your situation. You will be more open to positive discussion with your older adult.
If an older adult is constantly complaining or criticizing, a temporary break may help you understand why this is happening. You may realize that the complaining and criticizing may have nothing to do with you. The older adult may be unhappy about needing help, feels sick or uncomfortable much of the time, suffering from clinical depression or dementia, has lost contact with his or her friends or is just angry about life. Understanding that complaints and criticism aren’t because of you can help soften their effects.
If criticism aimed at you was part of your former family situation, it is unrealistic to expect that this will change. If this is the case, it is especially important to seek outside help for family caregiving needs. Outside help may include turning to family members or friends, hiring care services or utilizing free community services.
A family caregiver support group is also a good alternative. A group can help you feel less alone in dealing with issues. Also, other caregivers offer great tips in support groups on how they’ve dealt with similar situations. Support groups for people with specific illnesses are also available and may be a good place for your older adult to vent feelings.
Everybody thinks they listen. But especially in close relationships – spousal, parent-child or close friend – people begin to complete each other’s comments or fail to hear other’s thoughts because there is an assumption of knowing what will be said. Or, in the case of an older adult constantly complaining, a caregiver is likely to tune out repeated complaints. It is human nature!
To really listen, make an effort to focus on what is being said and speak only after your older adult has finished talking. You will likely be surprised at what you hear. Think about the comments and then try to envision yourself as saying those words and why you would say them. In other words, spend time in your older adult’s shoes.
In situations where closeness has caused you to take your older adult for granted, these conscious listening periods can re-ignite feelings of empathy that may make communicating easier. Also, your increased responsiveness may be noticed by your older adult who may then be willing to try the “listening game.”
Say “I” instead of “You” statements.
It is important as a family caregiver to be assertive but not aggressive. Assertiveness helps you maintain your personal boundaries and what you are willing to accept and do as a family caregiver.
To assert how you feel and not be accusatory, it is better to use “I” statements, such as “I feel …,” “I need…,” “I will …” and “I expect …” “I” statements allow you to express your feelings and are less likely to make others feel defensive. For example, say “I feel bad about what happened,” rather than “You made me feel bad about what happened.” The other person is more likely to be open to positive discussion about what happened than be defensive about causing hurt, and will likely volunteer an apology. Also, you may find out that hurting you was unintentional.
When using “I” statements, be specific about consequences. Rather than saying “You need to pick up Mom on time or else there could be problems.” Try saying, “I can take Mom to the store, if you can pick her up at 3 p.m. If she isn’t picked up on time, Mom may wander … or … Mom will not have a place to sit and wait at the store … or Mom buys frozen foods and they could melt.” Don’t assume another person understands your reasoning for requests. Instead, they may infer that you think they are unreliable.
Find a good time for conversation.
If you know your older adult or others doing family caregiving don’t like to talk in the morning, during the evening news or in the car, plan to discuss concerns at another time. Everyone has better and worse times for talking and listening. Sometimes simply asking, “Is this a good time to talk about something that I’m concerned about?” indicates your respect for the person’s time. If the person suggests another time, defer to his or her personal judgment. However, don’t allow someone to continue to put you off. Your feelings are important.
Step Away From Emotions.
Sometimes the best way to deal with conflict is to step away it. By simply saying, “I’m sorry, I can’t discuss this anymore. Maybe we can talk later,” and step away, you are acknowledging that the discussion is important to the other person while respecting your own limitations for handling the situation. After time away from the person or issue being discussed, what was so important to stand up for in the conflict may seem of little consequence later. If after stepping away and you feel the topic is still important, the matter can be brought up at a less emotionally charged time.
Become a duck.
Envision issues causing conflict as water and you as a duck. Other than making you smile, it sends an image to your brain that issues don’t have to be important – they can be like water and roll off your back. You can decide to make issues important or unimportant. For some family caregivers, this means recognizing that personal or relationship harmony is more important than winning any argument or ever being right. For others, realizing that people rarely make other people change, works for them. Find a perspective that works for you. Repeat it mentally and even verbally to yourself as needed. This perspective can make the difference as to whether family caregiving is a stressful, worrisome experience filled with conflict or generally a good experience that you choose to have.